One major facet of our work at Ligonier Ministries is helping Christians know what they believe and why they believe it. This is the work of apologetics. The task or science of Christian apologetics is primarily concerned with providing an intellectual defense of the truth claims of the faith. The term apologetics comes from the Greek word apologia, which literally means "a reasoned statement or a verbal defense." To give an apology, then, unlike the more current definition of "I'm sorry," is to defend and argue for a particular point of view.
The work of apologetics rests upon a biblical command. We find a mandate in Scripture to defend the faith, a mandate that every Christian must take seriously. In 1 Peter 3:14b-16, the apostle writes,
Have no fear of them [those who would harm you], nor be troubled, but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being 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, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame (emphasis added).
We are exhorted in this passage to stand ready in case anyone asks us to give a reason for our hope as Christians. This, Peter declares, is one way we regard Jesus as the holy Lord. Secondly, notice the ethical emphasis in verse 16: we are to answer all inquiriesâ€”even the abusive onesâ€”with gentleness and respect, so that those who revile Christians as evildoers might be ashamed. In this passage we see the reason for and importance of engaging in the task of apologetics.
The church fathers knew this task all too well, for the early Christian community was accused of participating in many devious acts. Leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70, Christianity had been viewed by the Roman Empire as a subset or sect of Judaism. But upon the holy city's destruction and the ensuing Diaspora (scattering of the Jews), the separation of Christianity from Judaism became evident. The problem for Christianity was this: Judaism was a legally sanctioned religion in the Roman Empire; Christianity had no such luxury. The practice of the Christian faith was illegal and subject to prosecution. The Christian intellectuals of the time rose up to answer the charges that were leveled against Christianity.
In many apologetic writings of the period (for example, Justin Martyr's Apology and Athenagoras's Plea), we can see four common accusations against Christians. First, the Christian community was charged with seditionâ€”Christians were regarded as traitors undermining the authority of the empire. As early as 29 b.c., emperor worship had emerged, most notably in the Asian city of Pergamum, and it continued well into the second century a.d. Reciting the phrase Kaisar kurios (Caesar is lord), burning incense to the emperor's image, or swearing by his name was required in order to prove loyalty to the state. The Christians refused to grant worship to the emperor and so were seen as disloyal and as being involved in political conspiracies. While believing that governments were to be respected (Rom. 13:1-7), apologists like Justin Martyr argued that Christians were exemplary models of civic virtue, paid their taxes, and submitted to the civil laws, but were unable to confess Caesar as lord because Jesus was the one and only Lord worthy of worship. Justin therefore challenged the authorities to not convict Christians on the basis of invalidated rumors.
Second, the charge of atheism was leveled against the early church, because of the Christians' refusal to worship the pantheon of Roman gods. Consider the story of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who, in his late eighties, was brought before the emperor Marcus Aurelius on charges of atheism. The emperor, not wanting to make a martyr out of the venerable bishop, sought to provide an avenue of escape for him. As Polycarp stood in the middle of an arena teeming with Roman citizens, Marcus Aurelius promised to spare his life on one condition: that he deny Christianity by declaring, "Away with the atheists!" The aged bishop, no doubt grinning, pointed up to stands filled with pagans and cried, "Away with the atheists!" The emperor was not amused by Polycarp's gesture and executed him that day as the crowds looked on. Justin Martyr, who was also murdered during Marcus Aurelius's reign, argued in his Apology that Christians were not atheists but totally committed theists, who, while affirming the reality of a single, supreme God, denied the polytheism of the Roman pantheon.
The third and fourth charges brought against early Christianity came as a result of rumors concerning their secret meetings in places like the catacombs. From the practice of "love feasts" (where early Christians partook in a common mealâ€”including Holy Communionâ€”attesting to their unity with Christ and each other) came rumors of incest and sexual perversion. The final accusation came from the practice of the Eucharist itself. Early Christians were charged with cannibalism. Word spread that during the secret meetings, these Christians were engaged in the eating and drinking of human flesh and blood. The apologists answered this allegation by explaining the sacrament and calling on the authorities to validate such allegations before persecuting anyone.
In conjunction with these common accusations leveled against the early church, Christians were also regarded as intellectually inferiorâ€”often because the doctrine of the Trinity seemed a contradiction to the Greek philosophers. Platonism and Stoicism ruled the day, and most philosophers charged Christians with myth-making. An early glimpse of this collision between the Christian faith and pagan philosophy can be seen in Acts 17, the famed account of the apostle Paul on Mars' hill. Such was the state of defending the faith for the first three centuries of the Christian church. Advocates of Greek philosophy accused Christians of contradiction or challenged the consistency of such doctrines as the Incarnation or the Resurrection. The first defenders of the faith responded ably to these challenges.
In every age the church faces the task of clarifying its truth claims from distortions against these claims. The discipline of apologetics did not die in the second century; rather, it lives on, because with each passing generation, wherever Christianity flourishes, so too do distortion, misrepresentation, overemphasis, and outright malicious deceit. The church's opponents will continue to accuse her of doing evil (this is assumed in 1 Peter 3:16), and so the Christian apologist assumes a defensive posture in order to repel false accusations whenever they come.
Apologetics, however, does not just entail defense. It also involves offense, the positive task of constructing a case for Christianity that shows itself to be applicable to every culture, as well as being the only (and therefore the best) alternative to the world's philosophical and theological systems of thought. In other words, apologetics can be used to show that Christianity is true and that all non-Christian worldviews are false. The best way to go about constructing a case for the Christian faith is partly the concern of this book. Not all Christians agree on where to start this task. But we do all agree on this: non-Christian thinking, according to Scripture, is "folly" (Ps. 14:1; 1 Cor. 1:18-2:16; 3:18-23).
The skeptic at this point might respond, "Prove it," which is a good thing, because proof is actually another facet of the apologetic task. Sadly, in our day many Christians argue that we ought not to be engaged in attempts to "prove" the truth claims of Christianity, that faith and proof are incompatible. While it is true that Reformed theologians generally believe that human nature is radically corrupt (which is a scriptural viewpoint: see 1 Kings 8:46; Rom. 3:9-23; 7:18; 1 John 1:8-10; cf. John 6:44; Rom. 8:7-8), they wrongly assume that, since in our corrupt nature we are unable to respond positively to the gospel, this spiritual inability renders the apologetic task useless. If objective proof cannot persuade a person to respond to Christ without the intervention of the Holy Spirit, then why bother trying to give sound arguments for Christianity?
Before we answer this objection, let us remember Peter's words, "Yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame" (1 Pet. 3:16). The apostle clearly expects that one outcome of apologetics is that the enemies of Christ are put to shame. This is reminiscent of the great Genevan reformer John Calvin (1509-1564), who wrote in his Institutes regarding the proof of the authenticity of biblical prophecies, "If godly men take these things to heart, they will be abundantly equipped to restrain the barking of ungodly men; for this is proof too clear to be open to any subtle objections." If anyone believed that the total inability of man required the Holy Spirit to convert a soul, it was Calvin. Likewise, if anyone believed in the total inability of apologetics to convert a soul, it was Calvin. He, of course, did not abandon the apologetic task but still used evidence and argument to prove matters of faithâ€”not to convert the hearts of the ungodly, but to "stop their obstreperous mouths." This is a large part of the task of the Christian apologist: to prove the Christian worldview, and to rely on God to cause the acquiescence of the unbelieving heart to the soundness of biblical doctrine. The church is up against not mere ignorance but biased enmity (Rom. 8:7). Only the Spirit can overcome this enmity, but the Spirit never asks people to believe what is absurd or irrational. Calvin noted the distinction between proof and persuasion. Proof is objective and persuasion is subjective. People who are hostile to certain ideas may have those ideas proven to them, but in their bias they refuse to be persuadedâ€”even by the soundest of arguments.
Apologetics, for this reason, is not merely about winning an argument. It is about winning souls. The old aphorism rings true: "People convinced against their will hold the same opinions still." That is why, for example, if a Christian were to "win" an intellectual debate with a non-Christian, the victory celebration may never take place. The non-Christian might concede defeat, though usually not until his head hits his pillow at the end of the day. This may never translate into conversion, but there is some value to this aspect of "winning" an argument. On the one hand, as Calvin said, the unbridled barking of the ungodly may be restrained; and on the other, the intellectual victory provides assurance and protection to the young Christian who is not yet able to repel the bombardment of criticism from scholars and skeptics. It serves as a confirmation of the Christian's faith.
The Christian bothers to engage in apologetics because, quite simply, how will the nonbeliever hear the truth of Christ Jesus "without someone preaching?" (Rom. 10:14c). Not everyone could accomplish what Justin Martyr or Athenagoras did, but they gave credibility as well as confidence to the whole Christian community of the second century, and by extension the Christian church throughout history has benefited from the fruits of their labor.
One question we face as Christian apologists is how we should proceed in our argument. I take the position that the best starting point for apologetics is with the existence of God. If we can establish the existence of God first, then all the other issues of apologetics become easier to defend. Others believe that it is better to establish the authority of the Bible first. If the authority of the Bible is established, it clearly affirms the existence of God, the reality of creation, the deity of Christ, and so forth.
Other apologists prefer to argue from history. They first try to prove the deity of Christ and then reason back from Jesus to the existence of God.
In this book, after a discussion of the very important theme of epistemology, which addresses the question of how we can know anything at all, we will consider the issue of the existence of God and then move to the authority of the Bible. I see these as the two macro-issues of Christian apologetics. If God and the Bible (that God is, and that he has revealed himself to us) are established, then all the rest of the issues with respect to Christianity will be vastly simplified. Issues of the Resurrection, the deity of Christ, and so forth, can then be resolved by careful biblical interpretation.
This book, therefore, is both introductory and restrictive. It is not a comprehensive study of apologetics but a primer on the two major propositions we must defend: the existence of God and the authority of the Bible.
â€”Defending Your Faith