By Alyssa Roat, Crosswalk.com
What does the word “apologetics” bring to mind? Academics arguing from podiums? Street-corner preachers? Giant tomes filled with technical theological language to make the head spin? Ancient writings in Greek or Latin from early church fathers who may have been a footnote in your world history class?
Apologetics may conjure up a variety of mental images. But at a basic level, apologetics is just a term for the reasoned defense of the Christian faith.
Let's look at five common questions about apologetics:
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1. What Does the Word “Apologetics” Mean?
The word “apologetics” comes from the Greek word “apologia,” meaning a speech of defense. This comes from “apo” meaning “away” and “logia” meaning “speech”; thus, “apologia” literally meant to “speak away” or refute an accusation.
In antiquity, the “apologia” was the defense made in the courtroom. After the accusation, the defendant was allowed to refute the charges with a reply (apologia). A famous example of this is in The Apology by Plato, recounting the trial of Socrates.
“Apologetics” has nothing to do with saying sorry or expressing remorse. This is a common misunderstanding, as the word apologetics sounds so close to the word “apology,” which we use to mean expressing remorse or sorrow.
However, this was not the meaning of the word “apology” up until near the end of the 16th century. Rather, apology still meant a defense. The first recorded use of apology in its modern sense is in Shakespeare’s Richard III. From around this point, apology began to take on its modern meaning, leading to the current confusion.
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2. What Is Christian Apologetics?
Christian apologetics is a branch of theology and Biblical study that aims to defend the authority of God’s Word, the character of God, and Christian belief as a whole. The idea here is of giving a reasoned defense of the truth, like a defendant on trial giving an answer to the judge. However, in this case, the judge is the world.
The intention of apologetics is not necessarily to convert people to Christianity. Instead, it is an attempt to show that belief in Christ and Biblical theology is rational, based on sound reasoning and factual information. In proper apologetics, there is no attempt made to “prove” that Christianity is true. As theologian Dr. William C. Davis writes in Reason for the Hope Within:
“For those who do not already believe, good arguments present a challenge to their faith in God’s nonexistence, but there is no argument which can force the unbeliever to choose between belief and irrationality…The way of escape will often be implausible, but it will be there.” (Murray, Michael J, ed. Reason for the Hope Within. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999, pg. 22)
Instead of “proving” Christianity, apologists (those who engage in apologetics) set out to show it to be the most reasonable answer. Francis Beattie identified three main tasks of apologetics: defense of Christianity as a system, a vindication of the Christian worldview against assailants, and a refutation of opposing systems and theories. John Frame set out a similar three-part outline of the “three aspects of apologetics” in his book Apologetics to the Glory of God: presenting a rational basis for faith, answering the objections of unbelief, and “attacking the foolishness of unbelieving thought.”
As a defense of the Christian faith, apologetics is a massive field of study. Some common categories of apologetics, as can be found at Cross Examined, are as follows:
- Truth exists.
- God exists.
- Miracles are possible.
- The New Testament is historically reliable.
- Jesus has risen from the dead.
Apologetics is not concerned with Biblical literacy or Christian living in the way much Biblical study is. Whereas most theological study begins with the belief that the Bible is the true and inerrant Word of God, apologetics reasons from outside the Bible to attempt to show that beliefs, such as said belief that the Bible is true and inerrant, are indeed rational.
An apologist is not attempting to educate in how God created the world or inflicted the Ten Plagues on Egypt, for example; an apologist is rather attempting to prove that the belief that God did in fact create the world or did inflict the plagues on Egypt is rational.
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3. Is Apologetics Biblical?
The root word for apologetics appears 17 times in the Bible, either in the noun form of “apologia” or the verb form of “apologeomai.”
In the book of Acts, Luke uses the word in his accounts of the early church for situations in which Christians, especially Paul, were put on trial for proclaiming the Gospel, and had to defend themselves, usually for engaging in unlawful behavior.
Paul used the word in the Pauline epistles, the books of the Bible that were letters he wrote to various churches. Some of his uses were more abstract, but still along the lines of the traditional sense of the word, for example when he was “defending” himself against criticism of his claim to be an apostle (1 Corinthians 9:3, 2 Corinthians 12:19). Others were in the literal sense of a court apologia, such as in 2 Timothy 4:16 in which Paul speaks of his trial, saying, “At my first defense, no one came to my support” (emphasis added).
However, Paul also used the term in a way that is similar to how we use it today. In Philippians 1:16, Paul says, “I am put here for the defense of the gospel.”
The Bible verse most often quoted to support the use of apologetics actually comes from the apostle Peter. 1 Peter 3:15 says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have,” or, in the ESV, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (emphasis added).
Paul, Peter, and other believers traveled the known world preaching the Gospel. Their speeches, as recorded in Acts, often included a great deal of reasoning from the cultural and philosophical context of the audience to which they spoke.
However, it is important to remember the end of 1 Peter 3:15, a part that is often left off when quoted. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15, emphasis added). Peter continues, “keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:16).
The goal of apologetics is never to belittle or attack. Instead, it is to provide a reason for the hope we have.
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4. Why Do We Need Apologetics?
It must be clearly stated that apologetics are not meant to convert people to Christianity. People respond to God through the work of the Holy Spirit, and seldom is faith simply a matter of deciding on the most logical worldview, like choosing between two answers to a math problem.
However, apologetics are important, to remove barriers to faith and bolster the faith of those who already believe.
Francis Shaeffer referred to apologetics as “pre-evangelism.” In Mere Apologetics, theologian Alistair McGrath writes, “Apologetics lays the ground for the invitation; evangelism extends it.” When the basic tenants on which Christian belief rests such as the existence of truth and God are considered unreasonable, it is difficult for a person, even if that person feels what might be the presence of God or wishes to believe in a greater hope, to believe in something that seems completely irrational. Thus, apologetics removes some of these barriers and opens minds to the possibility that since some tenants of Christian faith are rational, perhaps the whole might also be true.
Apologetics are just as helpful to the believer. Though an initial emotional experience might draw a person to Christ, a faith based on emotions is difficult, and, in fact, unhealthy, to maintain long term. A warm and fuzzy feeling will not necessarily hold up in the storms of life; a grounded reason to believe in an eternal, loving God offers quite a bit more solace.
Furthermore, apologetics is essential for believers to maintain faith in the midst of attacks from without. Apologetics is about defending oneself and disarming opponents; in a physical way, it would be like defending oneself against an attacker and disarming the person by taking away the knife. No attack is involved on the part of the believer, but apologetics, like in the case of a knife attack on a victim, is about the safety—in this case, in a spiritual sense—of the individual against false teaching and beliefs.
Some might say that there are plenty of people who get by on blind faith alone and live godly lives with no knowledge of apologetics. “This is the meaning of faith.” Granted, sometimes believers must simply trust God, even when they don’t understand what God is doing. But this blind faith is not so blind; it is based upon the belief that God is indeed good and has the best plan.
However, it is to be argued that picking a belief and sticking to it blindly with no supporting reasons or evidence is madness in the same vein as deciding to believe in the proverbial flying spaghetti monster with no evidence that such a creature has ever or will ever exist. Faith, however, is believing in what one knows to be true, rather than what one can discern in the current situation (Hebrews 11:1, 2 Corinthians 5:7).
Unlike this blind faith mentality, the Bible at no point advocates irrationality. The Old Testament is full of God’s prophets pointing out the foolishness of Israel’s idol worship. Notably, the prophets do not simply tell the people to worship God instead. They give reasons. Over and over, the prophets remind the people of the evidence, of what God has done. In Judges, in describing the chaotic spiral into sin and utter depravity, Judges 2:10-12 records:
After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. (emphasis added)
This account is directly followed by God handing Israel over to raiders, enemies, and defeat. Within a generation, the lack of knowledge was what led to the collapse of Israel.
Apologetics does not bring salvation, but it removes barriers between the unbeliever and faith as well as removes stumbling blocks from the path of those who believe.
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5. Where Can I Study Apologetics?
Apologetics can be a lifelong study, with plenty of believers holding doctorates in specific fields. However, any believer can learn plenty without going to such lengths. Below are a few accessible resources to get you started.
Websites on Apologetics:
CrossExamined.org: This website is run by an evangelical interdenominational nonprofit ministry that conducts seminars at college campuses, churches, and high schools. The website has everything from blog posts to videos to podcasts to online courses and is written and presented at a layman’s level.
Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry: Another nonprofit, this ministry mainly focuses on analyzing other religious and non-religious movements in comparison to the Bible, but also addresses apologetics as a whole. CARM does an excellent job tackling common complex apologetics topics like the teleological or ontological arguments and breaking them down into simple, short articles.
Stand to Reason: Stand to Reason’s about page states, “Stand to Reason trains Christians to think more clearly about their faith and to make an even-handed, incisive, yet gracious defense for classical Christianity and classical Christian values in the public square.”
Books on Apologetics:
The Reason for God by Timothy Keller: This is a relatively short book that condenses some of the main questions of apologetics into a digestible, logical, and entertaining format for the beginner.
When God Goes to Starbucks by Paul Copan: This short, straightforward book addresses more current cultural questions about Christianity.
Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis: One of the most beautiful expressions of theology and Christian belief in the modern era, this book is based on a series of radio talks given by Lewis and is thus written in a conversational, winsome tone.
Reason for the Hope Within edited by Michael J. Murray: This book compiles chapters from dozens of noted theologians and apologists. Some knowledge of logical reasoning and philosophy might be helpful, but otherwise this book, though more dense then the previous three, is a good place to start.
The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel: This famous book written by a former atheist specifically examines Christ Himself from a lawyer’s standpoint, literally putting the Gospel on trial to make an apologia.
(This is by no means a comprehensive list, but rather represents some favorites of the author.)
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