Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Why Study Apologetics?

By Frank M. Levi

The question “Why study apologetics?” implies that there are positive reasons for engaging in such a study. However, before answering that question there is a negative question that needs to be addressed. Why do many shy away from apologetics, some even finding the discipline rather revolting? There are three main reasons that come to mind.

The word “apologetics conjures up visions of a formal debate between a Christian and an atheist in some academic environment, throwing arguments containing words like ontological and epistemological back and forth at each other. These types of debates do take place, but it gives the average believer the false impression that apologetics is just for the intellectually elite. The truth is that most of us are capable of greater things mentally that we might realize. Our minds and reasoning abilities are part of the image of God and when we use our minds in the right way we are bringing glory to our Creator. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Cor. 14:20 ESV). Refusing to apply our minds, even to difficult doctrinal issues, is every bit as much a sin as theft or covetousness. Some aspects of apologetics may be difficult, but one does not have to be an intellectual giant to benefit from its study.

Another reason why some have been turned off by apologetics has nothing to do with apologetics, but with the apologist. Some of this criticism is legitimate and some is not. It is certainly true that apologetics does tend to attract augmentative people, as well as those who are afflicted with intellectual pride. To anyone who is argumentative by nature or who enjoys the superior feeling they get from proving someone else wrong I would say, don’t study apologetics until you repent and become more mature spiritually. Unfortunately, some so-called apologists have done more harm than good toward the advancement of the Kingdom of God.

However, some paint with a very broad brush and consider all apologists to be prideful, arrogant people. Such is certainly not the case. Obviously anyone engaged in doing the work of apologetics is going to be convinced of the truth of his position. Today it is quite unpopular to say that one really believes something to be absolutely true. Consequently when an apologist presents an argument, it is more likely that he will be attacked rather than the argument he is presenting. C. S. Lewis has been accused of engaging in “triumphalistic” apologetics because he maintains that atheism is provably in error.[1] In a recent article in Christianity Today about L’Abri, one of the current instructors there is quoted as saying, “Presuppositionalism can appear to be humble, but actually it’s quite arrogant. . . .”[2] Two responses to this sort of criticism are appropriate. First, words such as “humble” and “arrogant” apply to persons and their character and not to ideas or philosophical positions. Individuals may be humble or arrogant, but their ideas and beliefs are valid or invalid, sound or unsound. Those who use personal epithets such as “arrogant” in an attempt to cast a negative light on a philosophical position are making a category mistake, i.e., they are confusing and mixing qualities that may be true of one category (the apologist), with a second category (the argument used by the apologist). This amounts to the same thing as saying that algebra is arrogant because the textbook and the professor insist that there are correct and incorrect answers to the math problems on the test. Some apologists may be arrogant, condescending, and argumentative, but to say that apologetics as a disciple is so is unfounded. Secondly, to say that someone such as Lewis is triumphalistic and therefore conclude that his arguments are to be rejected is to commit the logical fallacy called ad hominem. Ad hominem is the attacking of the man rather than his position. Such attacks are often used in political campaigns. But the ad hominem proves nothing, for a man may be arrogant and abrasive and still have a valid argument.

Hopefully, we have been able to clear away some of the common reasons for not studying apologetics so we may now turn to the positive reasons for pursuing this discipline. Number one on my list may be a surprise to many because it has nothing directly to do with debating a non-believer. I would say that the first and most basic reason for a Christian to study apologetics is for their own spiritual benefit. One of the most famous arguments for the existence of God is the Ontological Argument, which was formulated by St. Anselm (1033-1109) during a time in history when it would have been difficult to find an atheist with whom to debate. So why did Anselm develop such a complex argument? The argument begins, “And so, Lord, do thou, who dost give understanding to faith, give me, so far as thou knowest it to be profitable, to understand that thou art as we believe: and that thou art that which we believe. And, indeed, we believe that thou art a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.” What we have here is a prayer coming from the heart of a true believer requesting that God would grant him greater understanding of his heavenly Lord. True knowledge begins with faith, but faith seeks greater and greater understanding of its content. St. Augustine wrote, “I believe in order that I might understand.” Faith is fundamental to any discipline. Even the scientist must have faith in his rational and observational abilities as well as faith in the validity of the scientific method. Armed with that faith the scientist explores the intricacies of the physical world, seeking greater understanding of nature. St. Augustine began with faith, but he didn’t fall into fideism, i.e., faith devoid of intellectual content. No, St. Augustine longed to know all that he could about the God who created him and loved him. For saints like Augustine and Anselm and many others apologetics is first and foremost a prayer to know and understand God and His ways better. When we are in love, we want to know as much as possible about the one we love.

As Christians our faith is always under attack, not so much by skeptics, but by someone much more clever and ruthless. St. Paul commanded us: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Eph. 6:11 ESV). The apostle tells us that we need “the belt of truth” and “the shield of faith” if we are to stand against such an enemy. Much of the battle for the faith takes place in the mind of the believer as Satan throws his flaming darts of doubt at us. How are we to resist? We fight off his attacks by having faith and knowing the truth. In all honesty most Christians will never have an opportunity to use the ontological argument in a discussion with a non-believer or ever be a participant in a formal debate. But Christians regularly have to do battle with Satan’s attacks on their faith. Apologetics helps us face our doubts and questions, which often we suppress or deny, and defeat them. It is only after we have increased our own assurance and know why we believe what we believe so that we will be able to speak with confidence to the non-believer.

The final reason to study apologetics, which some mistakenly think is the only reason, is the presentation of the faith to the non-believer in a clear and persuasive way. The Scriptural basis for apologetics was stated clearly by St. Peter when he wrote, “. . . always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. . . .” (1 Peter 3:15,16 ESV) St. Peter was not writing to college professors or professional apologists. No, he was writing to every Christian. Every one of us has a responsibility to prepare ourselves so that we might be able to explain our faith to a non-Christian when the opportunity arises. When we hear the word apologetics, many of us immediately envision Greg Bahnsen and Gordon Stein engaged in The Great Debate. But the reality is that most apologetic encounters take place in the context of a Christian explaining Christianity to some interested non-Christian. Much of the work is simply clearing away common misconceptions about our beliefs. That is something every Christian should be able to do, but it does take study and preparation. Alister McGrath made this point quite well when he wrote: “Remember Augustine’s remarks about Christianity after hearing Ambrose of Milan preach: ‘I had yet to discover that it taught the truth, but I did discover that it did not teach the things I had accused it of.’”[3] Satan has only one weapon—the lie. Only one weapon, but he uses it quite effectively. Satan’s lies are defeated by the truth, and we need to be able to confront his lies with the truth. Instead of being only an academic study reserved for the intellectually elite, apologetics is one of the most practical of disciplines. That it is not for the average Christian is also one of Satan’s most effective lies.

So why study apologetics? We study apologetics that we might know our Lord better and to equip us with the armor we need to resist the attacks of the devil on our faith. We also do so for the benefit of others, not to defeat them but to help free them from Satan’s lies that they too might know God and glorify His holy name. Amen.

[1] See C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea by Victor Reppert IVP.
[2] Christianity Today, March, 2008, article “Not Your Father’s L’Abri,” p. 60.
[3] Alister McGrath, Intellectuals Don’t Need God and Other Myths, p. 193.