Thoughts on the role of Apologetics in Evangelism
Throughout church history ‘Apologetics’ has been practiced by Christians in order to provide a reason for their faith. There are many occasions where we can trace this activity to the apostles. In Acts Paul defends himself before the mob in Jerusalem (22:1ff), before the Jewish Council (23:1ff), before Felix (24:1ff), and before Festus and Agrippa (Acts 25:1ff). There are also several instances where Paul is recorded ‘reasoning’ with the Jewish leaders. While each of these scenarios provide plenty of material for discussion, I would like to focus on the proper place of apologetic reasoning in evangelism.
Apologetics (‘to give an answer’) finds its meaning from the ancient legal system of the Greeks where a person would attempt to defend themselves against a charge by making a strong apology (apologia), ‘a reasoned case for claiming innocence’. The apology was an attempt to ‘speak off’ the charge given. Furthermore, in classical and Hellenistic-Greek literature the word dialegesthai (translated ‘reason’) mostly means “converse, discussion, and that for Socrates, Plato and Aristotle it means the art of persuasion and demonstration…in the form of question and answer.” This seems to follow the method of Paul in Acts. Longnecker writes;
These accounts “emphasize that Paul’s preaching consisted of both proclamation and persuasion. It was their custom to visit the local synagogue where Paul found a prepared audience to speak of the things of God…It is interesting to note that Paul ‘reasoned’ with them over a span of three days. More than that, Paul “reasoned with them from the scriptures.”
Those around Paul were most likely in search of truth. For the “synagogue was not so much a preaching-house as a school, in which education was carried on by discussion.” This is a good start.
It might help to make a distinction between two words. L. Russ Bush once wrote, “An apology refers to a specific defense whereas apologetics refers to the science of making an apology.” A Christian apologist is simply one who actively seeks to give an answer for the Christian faith. In today’s church there are very few people who are able to make a reasonable defense for their faith. It might be that the church has a whole has failed to adequately train parishioners, or that parishioners have seen the role of providing an ‘apology’ to those labeled ‘apologists’.
Also many Christians are unable “to answer their modern critics”, but find comfort in that fact that they have been “touched in their hearts by the Holy Spirit” and fall back on anti-intellectual faith as their hope. This ‘subjective’ anti-intellectualism stresses the experience of a personal faith rather than a reasoned defense of the content of Christian faith. Is this a Biblical stance?
The Apostle Peter urges the church in his first letter to “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” In this case it seems that Peter was talking to a group of believers who had been delivered from a pagan background. This being the case- much training would have been needed, and Peter was making this need apparent in his exhortation.
In order to ‘make a defense’ one must understand what it is he/she believes. Also, one must (at the very least) be aware of the basic assumptions of other worldviews. Rosas is correct in stating that there is a positive and negative aspect of the apologetic task, “theological interpretation must take place before any defense can be given. The basic affirmations to be defended must be set forth. Negatively, an apologist must seek to encounter false charges and misconceptions raised by the detractors of the Christian faith, as well as expose weaknesses of their worldviews.” This being said we can turn to the question at hand.
What is the role of apologetics in evangelism? I would agree with Bush here, that while apologetic reasoning is an important aid to evangelism, it is not essential. It might help to clarify why. When we speak of ‘reason’ it is in reference to a mental process. By reasoning we mean, “the ability of the mind to question, challenge, and analyze ideas. We also mean the capacity of the mind to distinguish between viewpoints, and the seemingly inherent assumption of the mind that considers truth to be that which it in fact the case, and the further persuasion that truth is better than non-truth.” In most cases human beings communicate using rational processes.
Now, in the case of Christian evangelism we would argue that a reasonable defense of the faith would be a “set of knowable facts corresponding to biblical claims about nature an about history.” While it is true that the rational mind is capable of being persuaded by truth claims, it is not always the case. Furthermore, we need to be careful is assuming that someone is saved when they make a mental assent to the Gospel facts. “People are not saved merely because they verbalize the truth. They must also believe in their heart (Romans 10:9-10); that is, they must truly find an internal conviction in their soul regarding these matters.” “Not everyone comes to Christ at the end of a logical argument.”
Therefore we need to understand the proper role in Apologetics in evangelism. “The persuader who manipulates is not an evangelist who is making Disciples of Christ”, some are making disciples of themselves. In some cases, those who manipulate only accomplish getting others to confirm their own conclusions. When reasoning with someone you must acknowledge that you “do not perform the spiritual transaction,” it is God who saves. Yet, even if the truth spoken does not succeed in the goal of persuasion, the evangelist should not be disappointed. We are expected to proclaim the gospel, the Apostle Paul argues that “no one can believe if he or she has not heard” (Romans 10:14).
Are their cases where someone has believed and not heard a full apology? Are there cases where someone has heard a full apology of the Gospel message and not received it as that which ‘converts’ the soul? Obviously the answer is yes. “Apologetic arguments cannot generate faith, but the Christian can answer the false charges of the unbeliever so that obstacles to hearing the gospel are removed.” Derek Radney rightly pointed out in a conversation a while back that “human reason is not neutral.” What he means is that our minds, ‘the ability to reason’, have been affected by sin. Not to the extent that it is totally destroyed, which is obvious when we observe the progress made by humanity in the Sciences. But on a spiritual level we are blinded to the truth. This helps us understand the role of apologetics in evangelism. Apologetic reasoning is a battle to tear down the barriers of the natural mind, but it alone cannot generate faith. It is also our defense, as Christians, against allowing ourselves to be influenced by false doctrine. It is thus an important part of spiritual growth and evangelistic persuasion.
Only the regenerate mind and a tender heart can proper conviction of sin, and recognition of the consequences of sin be brought to light. This comes from God’s spirit, and is the true essential for evangelistic persuasion. Therefore, have confidence in God as the sovereign evangelist. Be encouraged while at the same time labor to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.
- Dieter Werner Kemmler, Faith and Human Reason, 20.
- Richard Longenecker, Acts, 468.
- Kemmler, 21-22.
- Joseph Rosas, Evangelism and Apologetics, 114.
- L. Russ Bush, Christian Apologetics and Intentional Evangelism, 255.
- Rosas, 114.
- Bush, 256.
- I am not implying, for example, that those who are mentally handicapped or unable to communicate for one reason or another are any less human than others. Bush rightly notes that it is the “genetic structure of cells rather than mental performance that is properly used to define” the human species. (256)
- Bush, 257.
- Bush, 258.
- Bush, 259.
- Bush, 258.
- Bush, 258.
- Rosas, 115.