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The Place of Apologetics in Our Proclamation

I've been involved in a couple of discussions about apologetics with Tom Price from the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. It began when David Meredith tweeted out this:

I enthusiastically retweeted it. Tom pushed back and we ended up having this discussion.

That got picked up by folks at Premier Christianity and so we wrote a couple of brief defenses of our positions. Now I didn't choose the wording of the "motion" and wish it had been different, but we ended up debating the proposition: "Apologetic sermons rarely work." My case for the affirmative begins like this:

Being 'anti-apologetics' is like being 'anti-good works'. Who could possibly be against good works? Well, every Protestant is – if those good works are placed on the wrong side of the line. Good works are great. But their proper place is on the far side of knowing Jesus.

Revelation is exactly parallel to salvation (John 17:3) – to know God is to be saved by him and vice versa. Therefore, just as we don’t work our way towards God (and get topped up by grace), so we don’t think our way towards God (and get topped up by revelation). The arrow must come all the way down. Gospel preaching, then, is not bottom-up philosophizing, it's top-down proclamation.

In hindsight I wish I'd stated in the clearest possible terms that what many consider to be "apologetics" is simply what I'd call thoughtful, responsive, contextualised evangelism. If all a person means by "apologetics" is simply answering people's questions then sign me up - I'm a keen apologist.

But the trouble is that apologetics has, unfortunately, become something else - something in addition to gospel proclamation. And wherever people want to make a case for another kind of proclamation other than a top-down declaration of God's word, then I take issue.

You can read the whole of my piece, Tom's defense and the lively comments thread HERE.

As a taster, here's my comment on Acts 17:

If you ask me Acts 17 is a classical apologist's one shot at a Scriptural example - and in it, Paul does the complete opposite. He babbles on about Jesus and the resurrection in the market place (*not* the most reasonable starting point for the Athenian philosophers!) When asked to step back and give the big picture he is very rude to them. He tells them how superstitious they are. He is incensed by their idolatry. He doesn't think "Ooo, look at all these potential stepping stones to truth faith." He thinks "Look at the ignorance." He makes fun of the fact they're so ignorant, they've even got an unknown god. So he tells them "The one thing you guys know is that you don't know God." Then he declares God to them in a way that is 180 degrees different to their understanding of God and the world (we live in his world, he doesn't live in ours, etc, etc). Yes he quotes their poets (I quote pop culture too!) but he quotes them *against* the prevailing cultural narrative. He then does an Adam and Christ christology (which none of them would have thought "reasonable"). Then he announces that they must all repent of their ignorance because God has raised this man from the dead. Says who? Where's your proof Paul? No that *is* Paul's proof. He announces the resurrection (without any supporting evidence whatsoever!) and expects them to repent. Some do! Others want to continue dialoguing - Paul doesn't seem interested at this point so he leaves.

If you're an apologetics-lover I'd say:

1) Make sure you understand what it is I'm opposing. I love, practice and completely endorse engaging with non-Christians and non-Christian world-views - I just want to make sure my "answering words" are gospel words. Click the apologetics tag here and see that for every post about rejecting bottom-up philosophizing there are five posts on positively engaging with culture, science, religion, atheism, the news, etc.

2) Realise I'm not at all "anti-reason". I just happen to think that the race of Adam is anti-reason. The word of the cross is the very definition of rationality - it's just that the wisdom of this world will never agree with it.

3) The Bible's verses about our hostile minds and the stark opposition of the gospel to human philosophy need to be faced with the utmost seriousness (e.g. Romans 1:20ff; 8:9; 1 Cor 1-3; 2 Cor 10:4-5; Eph 4:17-19; Col 2:8-9). Paul is ruling out something here. Make sure you're not doing the thing he's opposing.

4) If you're lifting high the name of Jesus, you are my brother/sister and I thank God for you. Be blessed.

12 thoughts on “The Place of Apologetics in Our Proclamation

  1. Daniel

    Thanks for this, Glen. I think you're broadly right about Acts 17 - Paul quotes from sources they'd respect, but only to construe them as part of a broader narrative about Jesus which turns the quotes themselves on their heads. Part of the confusion seems to be about starting points. I think you're right that the conclusion of the sermon - the resurrection of Jesus - is also Paul's starting point. The rest doesn't build up to it, except rhetorically. The pagans contribute nothing to Paul's narrative except some handy quotes which he uses to mean something they don't mean in their original context.

    Paul does employ a sort of historical apologetic for the resurrection though, doesn't he - I'm thinking with Agrippa, for example - "these things were not done in a corner". So might we not use an apologetic of this sort, developed to reflect our increased historical distance?

  2. Glen

    Thanks Daniel. How would you develop that historical apologetic given that, for us, the historical testimonies pretty much *are* the Scriptures?

    For instance on Sunday I've got Matthew 28:11-15 in my passage and I'll probably say "Look, the Scriptures tell us what the resurrection-deniers were saying: 'the apostles stole the body.' They would have loved to have been able to produce the body but they couldn't cos even the resurrection deniers knew the tomb was empty. Therefore the choice for those in the 1st century was the same as the choice for us today: either believe the apostles (the writers of the NT) or conclude that they are wicked charlatans. There is no middle ground.

    But it's the same choice then as now. For those who think 1st century folks were in a better position, look at v17 - "some doubted". Even with Jesus right there! Our problem is never lack of evidence. It's that God has always wanted us to know these events as those interpreted for us by the prophets and apostles. You can't by-pass the Scriptures - what we have in the NT is precisely what has always led to certain faith - in the 1st century and the 21st. It's not just that the Scriptures are sufficient, but that going outside them takes us away from the foundation that would give us confidence.

    That's what I'd say - what would you say in terms of a "historical apologetic"?

  3. Daniel

    Yeah, so I guess we'd be saying the same thing. The apologetics part just comes in making explicit some things about the testimony in the text which might be missed, especially at our distance. That's what you're doing by pointing out that nobody could deny the empty tomb, I guess. It's what I might do with 1 Cor 15, just to make explicit how daring it would be for Paul to appeal to (nearly) 500 living witnesses if he knew full well there were none.

    I agree that our most fundamental problem is not lack of evidence, but until the evidence (viz. the testimony of the witnesses in Scripture) is presented it is one of the problems - which of course you know. I suspect I'm not really saying anything you're not saying already.

  4. Jonno Saunders

    Hi Glen. Here are a couple of reflections, one from reading Van Til and two from personal experience on uni missions w.r.t. `proofs for God'.

    First, Christian Theism is a unit. Trying to argue up to God often leaves us (dubiously) with a unitarian God-concept and not the triune God of Scripture. You can't really think up to the Trinity, and so often the arguments assume more and more of what they're trying to prove at the start, or if they don't, we just end up with the `invisible omnibeing' which you've blogged about in the past. Christianity can't really be constructed bit by bit, it arrives as a top-down unit. Sometimes we even end up compromising on divine simplicity when we try to argue up.

    Second, God doesn't really care if we think he exists or not - even the demons believe that! He doesn't want (merely) our intellectual assent to his existence; he wants our bodies and lives and everything about us to fall before him as Lord and Saviour. We talk for hours and hours about evidence and proof but people don't really care about evidence or proof because their problem is not (merely) an intellectual one but a spiritual one. By nature our entire being is oriented away from God and towards sin.

    Third, most people don't know what they're rejecting. I'm really glad to hear that in your 3-2-1 book you start with the gospel and THEN think about objections. I've asked a number of people the question `If the God of the Bible were real, do you think you'd like to get to know him?' and they respond by saying they don't know, because they have no idea what he's like. Amazing! Most people on university campuses have genuinely never heard the gospel. Tragic. But the fields are ripe for harvest!

  5. Brian Midmore

    I would argue that apologetics are not a way of thinking our way to God but rather one of the means of removing the many impediments that hinder our coming to God or God coming to us. If we imagine that there is no evidence at all for the rssurrection and that it is a childish fairy story might not that be an impediment to our believing it?

  6. Glen

    (Sorry for late replies!)

    Hey Daniel, thanks for that paper. It frames things helpfully. An apologetics of the cross to my mind makes me think of law and gospel. The law is the declaration of truth on its own terms, declaring all else to be a-rational at best. The gospel is that Christ has descended *lower* than the dock, *lower* than the test-tube - yes into "history", but far deeper He has descended into our humanity and our hell. This note must be struck and struck even louder than the *law* (pre-suppositional) note. I find myself moving from law to gospel all the time in my interactions with non-Christians. If an atheist asks for evidence I say "Everything is evidence, it's clear as day" and there are plenty of things you can say around that idea. Then I find myself moving towards saying "But God doesn't leave us in our truth-suppression but submits Himself to the most astonishing scrutiny. We even got to dissect Him on the cross!" etc, etc. It's not usually deliberate but I often my dialoguing taking that shape - law then gospel. If the gospel note is the dominant one, then you avoid the power-play danger of some pre-suppositional stuff.

    But for me both "law" and "gospel" apologetic moves need to be based on the sure words of Scripture. To be honest the "evidence" for something like the resurrection is, for us today, pretty much equivalent to the Scriptures anyway. That's not anti-historical but truly historical. The evidence *beyond* the Scriptures is pretty thin anyway and not the sort of thing you'd want folks to rest their faith on even if you were a pure rationalist.

    Jonno - such helpful thoughts. Amen to them all and that's a great question to ask: "Would you like to know the God of the Bible?" It really exposes that people don't know enough of the gospel in order to do apologetics.

    This leads to....

    Brian - I'm all for clarifying what Christians are and aren't saying and for contextualising our communication (I'm sometimes accused of contextualising too much!). But I think the experience of Jonno above (which is also my experience) turns the "ground-clearing" argument on its head. It's not that people need the ground cleared before they can make their way towards gospel territory. They don't even know what gospel territory looks like or in what direction it lies. Therefore the urgent need is not so much to clear the ground and then head towards gospel lands. The urgent need is to declare that there is such a place, where it is, what it is like, the fact that it's worth visiting, etc, etc. Before we do that we can't even get to the ground-clearing stage.

    Once again, I'm all into clearing up misunderstandings and thinking things through with the unbeliever but I want to make a plea for doing so with the gospel front-and-centre and to do so on the basis that it's true.

  7. Brian Midmore

    Jonno seems to have a problem with apologetic arguments for the existence God. These are bound to be philosophical. Surely there is a difference when we consider apologetics for the resurrection. The bible itself is full of apologetics for the resurrection e.g. the gospels themselves and Paul in places like 1 Cor 15. If we believe in the resurrection we believe the Gospel because we believe that Jesus is the Messiah and LORD(Rom 1.4; 10.9)). To believe in the resurrection we need to be presented with the evidence for the resurrection (Acts 17.32).

  8. Jonno

    Hi Brian and Glen,

    Thanks for this discussion, it's really making me think!

    I don't think that theology has any less to say about history than it does about philosophy. What does the isolated fact of one man's atoms rearranging to bring him back to life have to do with God, the gospel, my sin, my death, or anything else? Unless the resurrection of Jesus comes along with his death for sins (what else he's done) and prior incarnation (who he is) it's really got not much to do with anything. Only with a Christian philosophy of history in the background does the resurrection actually mean anything of note.

    It's also interesting that in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul's authorities in his argument all derive from God - he's not trying to elevate reason or historical evidence above the authority of revelation but rather submitting these things to God's authority. Paul appeals to the scriptures (3, 4), the testimony of the apostles (1, 2, 5, 7, 8), creation and providence (38-41) and scripture again (45). These are not authorities which the average skeptic is going to accept! Incidentally in John 20 John really pushes at the point that Thomas should have accepted the apostles' testimony (25, 27), and that we should too (29-31).

    My point is not that there is not evidence for the resurrection. It is plain as day, just like the evidence in creation (Romans 1:18-25) and in the Bible (Luke 16:29). Rather my point is that the way back into covenant relationship with God is not an intellectual assent to the resurrection but a total submission of our being to him in faith by the spirit! We often look for extrabiblical evidence or `another miraculous sign' as Jesus might have put it. Actually, we have enough. Our problem has never been lack of information but rather sinful suppression of the revelation we have.

    `If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead' (Luke 16:31) - without the system of Christian truth behind it, the resurrection means nothing!


  9. Brian Midmore

    Clearly just believing in the historical fact of the resurrection would be insufficient. But If someone does not believe in resurrection how can they be a Christian. By believing in the resurrection we believe that Jesus is vindicated by God, proved to be the Messiah, and has conquered sin and death.

    Does not the resurrection prove who Jesus is ie the Son of God. Thus the resurrection per se says something even if we know nothing else. It says this Jesus is unique in history. Paul speaking at the areopagus did not start with the cross but with fact that Jesus was judge of the world because of the resurrection. Are you saying that the resurrection only makes sense because of the cross? I would argue the cross only makes sense because of the resurrection.

    You appear to be saying that apologetics is an appeal to extrabiblical information. But the bible is its own apologia to the resurrection.

  10. Jonno Saunders

    Hi Brian,

    I'm not averse to apologetics (I actually study apologetics full time!). I agree with all you've said about what the resurrection gives us. I also agree that the cross only makes sense because of the resurrection. My point is a simple one: Christian theism is a unit. The resurrection only proves Jesus' vindication by God, Messianic identity, victory over sin and death and Sonship if you take the resurrection within the whole system of Christian truth. The resurrection only has meaning if all the other parts about Jesus are there as well.

    At the Areopagus, after critiquing their false worship Paul actually starts with creation and providence (Acts 17:24-26) before moving onto the need for repentance, and then declaring that Jesus is judge, proven by his resurrection. He confronts them with the whole worldview of Christianity.

    This will probably be my last comment on here; I need to write an essay but I'll let you have the last word!


  11. Brian Midmore

    Maybe the issue is whether we believe in resurrection because it is in the bible and therefore 'revelation'or do we believe the bible because of evidence for the resurrection (wherever it comes from). The NT is rubbish if the resurrection did not happen and Christianity is nonsense. So in order to decide if the resurrection was a true event we might look to the NT but when we first consider the NT we do not know it is the word of God. It is only the word of God if the resurrection took place. If the resurrection did not occur it is nonsense. So in some sense NT evidence for the resurrection is no better than any other evidence since we do not know that it is divinely inspired till after we conclude the resurrection has occured. In other words the NT evidence is part of the historical evidence for the resurrection.

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