Christian Apologetics: Who Needs It?

June 01, 2009

Christian Apologetics: Who Needs It?

In the winter of 1985 I returned from a sabbatical in Paris to find that the dean of the seminary at which I taught had decided that the program in philosophy of religion was not worth the expenditure and so had decided to eliminate the department. More than that, he was also proposing to eliminate apologetics as a required course in the M. Div. curriculum. When I protested that training in Christian apologetics was vital for our future ministers, his reply shocked me: ‘Oh, I think that apologetics was a useful discipline for the church back in the ’40s and ’50s, but it’s no longer necessary today’. Fortunately, the faculty roundly disagreed with him on that score! But the fact that so deprecatory an attitude toward Christian apologetics could be ensconced at the highest administrative levels of an evangelical divinity school makes all the more pressing the question raised by his remark as to the necessity and utility of Christian apologetics. Notice that I speak of apologetics’ necessity and utility. The distinction is important. For even if apologetics should turn out not to be absolutely necessary, it doesn’t follow that it is therefore useless.

For example, it’s not necessary to know how to type in order to use a computer— you can hunt and peck, as I do—but nevertheless typing skills are very useful in using a computer. Or again, it’s not necessary to maintain your bicycle in order to go cycling, but it can be a real benefit to maintain a well-oiled machine. In the same way Christian apologetics can be of great utility even if it’s not necessary for some end. Thus we need to ask concerning Christian apologetics not only, ‘Who needs it?’ but also ‘What   is it good for?’

I agree wholeheartedly with contemporary, so-called Reformed epistemologists like Alvin Plantinga that apologetic arguments and evidence are not necessary in order for  Christian  belief to   be warranted for any person. The contention of theological rationalists (or evidentialists, as they are misleadingly called today) that Christian faith is irrational in the absence of positive evidence is difficult to square with Scripture, which seems to teach that faith in Christ can be immediately grounded by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8.14-16; 1 John 2.27; 5.6-10), so that argument and evidence become unnecessary. Further, the Christian evidentialist faces other severe difficulties:

(1) He would deny the right to Christian faith to all who lack the ability,  time,  or opportunity to understand and assessthe arguments and evidence. This consequence would no doubt consign untold millions of people who are Christians to (2) Those who have been presented with more cogent arguments against Christian theism than for it would have a just excuse before God for their unbelief. But Scripture says that all men are without excuse for not responding to the revelation they have (Romans 1:21). (3) This view creates a sort of intellectual elite, a priesthood of philosophers and historians, who will dictate to the masses of humanity whether or not it is rational for them to believe in the gospel. But surely faith is available to everyone who, in response to the Spirit’s drawing, calls upon the name of the Lord. (4) Faith is subjected to the vagaries of human reason and the shifting sands of evidence, making Christian faith rational in one generation and irrational in the next. But the witness of the Spirit makes every generation contemporaneous with Christ and thus secures a firm basis for faith.

So I do not, in fact, think that apologetics is necessary in order for Christian belief to be warranted. But it does not follow that Christian apologetics is therefore useless or of no benefit in warranting Christian faith. If  the person who is secularised will not. For the secular person you may as well tell him to believe in fairies or leprechauns as in Jesus Christ!

Unfortunately, Machen’s warning went unheeded, and biblical Christianity retreated into the intellectual closets of cultural isolationism, from which we have only recently begun to re-emerge.


Now I can imagine some of you thinking, ‘But don’t we live in a post- modern culture in which these appeals to traditional apologetic arguments are no longer effective? Since post-modernists reject the traditional canons of logic, rationality, and truth, rational arguments for the truth of Christianity no longer work. Rather in today’s culture  we should simply share our narrative and invite people to participate in it.’

In my opinion this sort of thinking could not be more mistaken. The idea that we live in a post-modern culture is a myth. People are not relativistic when it comes to matters of science, engineering, and technology; rather they are relativistic and pluralistic in matters of religion and ethics. But you see, that’s not post-modernism; that’s modernism!

arguments of natural theology and Christian evidences are successful, then Christian belief is warranted by such arguments and evidences for the person who grasps them, even if that person would still be warranted in their absence through the Spirit’s witness. Such a person is doubly warranted in his Christian belief, in the sense that he enjoys two sources of warrant.

Moreover,  Christian apologetics  may be useful and even necessary with respect to various other ends. Permit me to mention three ends with respect to which Christian apologetics plays a vital role in their realisation.

  1. Shaping Apologetics is useful and may well be necessary in order for the Gospel to be effectively heard in Western society today. The Gospel is never heard in isolation. It is always heard against the backgroundof the cultural milieu in which one lives. 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

It is for that reason that Christians who depreciate the value of apologetics because ‘no one comes to Christ through intellectual arguments’ are so short- sighted. For the 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 for thinking men and women. In his article ‘Christianity and Culture’ the great Princeton theologian

  1. Gresham Machen rightly declared,

False  ideas  are  the  greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the   nation  to be controlled by ideas which prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything  more  than  a  harmless delusion.2

That’s just old-line Positivism and Verificationism, which held that anything you can’t prove with your five senses is just a matter of individual taste and emotive expression. We live in a cultural milieu which remains deeply modernist.

If we lay aside our best weapons of logic and evidence, the consequences for the Church in the next generation will be catastrophic. Christianity will be reduced to but another voice in a cacophony of competing voices, each sharing its own narrative and none commending itself as the objective truth about reality, while scientific naturalism shapes our culture’s view of how the world really is.

Now, of course, it goes without saying that in doing apologetics we should be relational,  humble,  and  invitational;  but that’s hardly an original insight of post-modernism. From the beginning Christian apologists have known that we should present the reasons for our hope ‘with gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3.15). One needn’t abandon the canons of logic, rationality, and truth in order to exemplify these biblical virtues.

And as for the idea that people in our culture are no longer interested in nor responsive to rational argumentation and evidence for Christianity, nothing could be farther from the truth. If I might be permitted to speak from my own experience, for over 20 years I’ve been speaking evangelistically on university campuses in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, sharing the Gospel in the context of presenting an intellectual defense of Christian truth claims. I always close my talks with a long time of Q & A. During all those years virtually no one has ever stood up and said something like, ‘Your argument is based on Western, chauvinistic standards of logic and rationality’ or expressed some other post-modern sentiments. If you present scientific or historical evidence for a Christian truth claim, unbelieving students may argue with you about the facts—which is exactly what you want— but they don’t attack the objectivity of science or history. If you present a deductive argument for a Christian truth claim, unbelieving students may raise objections to your conclusion or premises—which is, again, precisely where the discussion should be—but they don’t dispute your use of logic itself.

Mind the gap

I do find that students can be suspicious of a Christian speaker. So they like to hear both sides of an issue presented. For that reason I’ve found debates to be an especially attractive forum for university evangelism. Shortly after finishing my theological doctorate, I began to receive invitations from Christian student groups in Canada to participate in debates on topics like ‘Does God exist’?, ‘Did Jesus rise from the dead?’,  ‘Humanism  vs. Christianity’, and so forth. And what I’ve discovered is that whereas a few score or maybe a couple of hundred will come out to hear me give a campus talk, several hundred and even thousands of students will come to a debate where they can hear both sides presented.

So don’t be deceived into thinking that people in our culture are no longer interested in the evidence for Christianity. Precisely the opposite is true. It is vitally important that we forge a culture in which the Gospel is heard as a living option for thinking people, and apologetics will be front and centre in helping to bring about that result.

  1. Strengthening Not only is apologetics vital to shaping our culture, but it also plays a vital role in the lives of individual persons. One of those roles will be strengthening believers.

As I speak in churches around the country, I frequently meet parents who approach me after the service and say something like, ‘If only you’d been here two or three years ago! Our son (or our daughter) had questions about the faith which no one in the church could answer, and now he’s lost his faith and is far from the Lord’.

It just breaks my heart to meet parents like this. As I travel, I’ve also had the experience of meeting other people who have told me of how they had been prevented from apparent apostasy through reading an apologetic book or seeing a video of a debate. In their case apologetics has been the means by which God has brought about their perseverance in the faith. Now, of course, apologetics cannot guarantee perseverance, but it can help and in some cases may, in the providence of God, even be necessary. Recently I had the privilege of speaking at Princeton University on arguments for the existence of God, and after my lecture I was approached by a young man who wanted to talk with me. Obviously trying to hold back the tears, he told me how a couple of years earlier he had been struggling with doubts and was on the brink of abandoning his faith. Someone then gave him a video of one of my debates. He said, ‘It saved me from losing my faith. I cannot thank you enough’.

Other students I met with at Princeton were enrolled in a class taught by the New Testament critic Elaine Pagels which they nicknamed the ‘Faithbusters Class’ teenagers are intellectually assaulted with every manner of non-Christian worldview coupled with an overwhelming relativism. If parents are not intellectually engaged with their faith and do not have sound arguments for Christian theism and good answers to their children’s questions, then we are in real danger of losing our youth. It’s no longer enough to teach

In this and many other ways apologetics helps to build up the body of Christ by strengthening individual believers.

  1. Evangelising unbelievers. Few people would disagree with me that apologetics strengthens the faith of Christian believers. But many will say that apologetics is not very useful in ‘Nobody comes to Christ through arguments’, they’ll tell you. (I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this said.)

Now this dismissive attitude toward apologetics’ role in evangelism is certainly not the biblical view. As one reads the Acts of the apostles, it is evident that it was the apostles’ standard procedure to argue for the truth of the Christian view, both with Jews and pagans. ‘So he [Paul] reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who where they can hear both sides presented.because of its destructive effect on the faith of many Christian students. They had no way of knowing how far out of mainstream scholarship Prof. Pagels’ views on the Gnostic gospels are. It was a privilege to share with them grounds for the credibility of the New Testament witness to Jesus.

Their experience is not unusual.

In high school and university,  Christian our children Bible stories; they need doctrine and apologetics. It’s hard to understand how people today can risk parenthood without having studied apologetics.

But Christian apologetics does much more than safeguard against lapses. The positive, upbuilding effects of apologetic training are even more evident. Many Christians do not share their faith with unbelievers simply out of fear. They’re afraid that the non-Christian will ask them a question or raise an objection that they can’t answer. And so they choose to remain silent and thus hide   their  light under a bushel, in disobedience to Christ’s command. Apologetics training is a tremendous boost to evangelism, for nothing inspires confidence and boldness more than knowing that one has good reasons for what one believes and good answers to the typical questions and objections that the unbeliever may raise. Sound training in apologetics is one of the keys to fearless evangelism.

happened to be there’. (Acts 17:17, see also 17:2-3; 19:8; 28:23-24). In dealing with Jewish audiences, the apostles appealed to fulfilled prophecy, Jesus’ miracles, and especially Jesus’ resurrection as evidence that he was the Messiah (Acts 2:22-32). When they confronted gentile audiences who did not accept the Old Testament, the apostles appealed to God’s handiwork in nature as evidence of the existence of the Creator, as in Acts  14:15-17:

We bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.

Then appeals were made to the eyewitness testimonies of the resurrection of Jesus to show specifically that God had revealed Himself in Jesus Christ (Acts 17:30-31; 1 Corinthians 15:3-8).

Aside from these Biblical examples, if I may speak personally, it has also been my own experience that apologetics is effective in evangelism. For example, when I was speaking in Moscow a few years ago I met a man from Minsk in Belarus. He told me that shortly after the fall of communism he had heard someone reading in Russian my book The existence of God and the beginning of the Universe over the radio in Minsk. By the end of the broadcast he had become convinced that God exists and yielded his life to Christ. He told me that today he is serving the Lord as an elder in a Baptist Church in Minsk. Praise God!

The last few years I’ve had the privilege of being involved in debates with Islamic apologists on various university campuses in Canada and the States. This summer, early one Saturday morning, I   received   a telephone call from a gentleman in Oman. He explained that he  had secretly lost his Muslim faith and had become an atheist. But now by reading various Christian apologetic works, which he was ordering on, he had come to believe in God and was on the verge of making a commitment to Christ. He was impressed with the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection and had called me because he had several questions he still needed to settle. We talked for an hour and I sensed that in his heart he had already come to believe in Christ; but he wanted to be cautious and be sure he had the evidence in place before he consciously made that step. He explained to me, ‘You  understand  that   I cannot tell you my real name. In my country I must lead a sort of double-life because otherwise I would be killed’.

I prayed with him that God would continue to guide him into truth and then we said goodbye. You can imagine how full of thanks my heart was to God for using these books—and for the internet—in the life of this man. Stories like this could be multiplied, and, of course, we never hear of most of them.

Is apologetics necessary in such cases? Would these people have come to Christ anyway, even if they had not heard the arguments? I think we have to say, ‘Only God knows!’ We may not know the truth- value of such counterfactuals of freedom; but we can and do know by experience that God uses apologetics in evangelism to bring lost people to Himself.

So in conclusion, Christian apologetics is a vital part of the theological curriculum. While not necessary for warranting Christian belief, it is, I believe, nonetheless sufficient for warranting Christian belief and therefore of great benefit. Moreover, apologetics plays a vital, and perhaps crucial, role in shaping culture, strengthening believers, and evangelizing unbelievers. For all these reasons, I am unapologetically enthusiastic about Christian apologetics. ©

E N D N O T E  S

  • This is an edited transcript of a lecture given as part of The Stob Lectures, Calvin College, November, 2004
  • Address delivered on September 20, 1912, at the opening of the 101st session of Princeton Theological Seminary. Reprinted in Machen, Gresham (1951). Machen, What is Christianity? Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, p162.

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