Apologetics is one of the most misunderstood and misused terms in the modern evangelical church. Too often it has come to mean having a contentious disagreement with an unbeliever (or especially a professing atheist) and clobbering them in the argument. But that is not apologetics! That is simply trying to sanctify obnoxious behavior. So what is apologetics? In short, it is believers giving an answer for the hope that is within them. But the long answer is a little more involved, but still basic to the Christian life. So I want to kick off a little sub series on apologetics as part of our back to the basics series here on Parking Space 23. My hope it will be a blessing to you and more importantly you will come away with the knowledge that apologetics is a Christian imperative and that the goal of every apologetic encounter, is not a won argument, but a repentant sinner won to the cause of Christ.
What were some of the major apologetic issues that Christians have faced throughout church?
From the earliest days of the church there has been a need to give an answer for the hope we have to a wide variety of challengers of the truth of the Gospel and the Christian faith. Apologetics is not a new phenomenon of Christianity, but has always been a part of the Christian experience.
We read about many of the earliest challenges to the gospel and the answers that Christians offered in the very pages of scripture. One of the earliest challenges came from the Jewish community who claimed that Christianity was a blasphemous perversion that worshipped a man rather than God. Reasoning from the scriptures, which was just the Old Testament that time, as Phillip did with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, Christians were able to demonstrate that Jesus was actually the promised divine messiah.
Another early challenge came from the Roman government. Their concern was not so much about the truth claims of Christianity, but rather that the church viewed Jesus as Lord and King. Because of this the church and Christians were viewed as subversive and disloyal to the Roman Government. The defense of the faith then took the form of proving that Christians could be good earthly subjects and citizen.
The early church also had to answer the Greek philosophical teaching that the spiritual was superior to the physical, and the Gnostic teaching that matter (the physical realm) was inherently evil and that only the spiritual was good. This was done by showing through scripture that the resurrection would be physical (Danial 12) and that God pronounced the material world very good after it was created (Genesis 1). Gnostics also claimed that the God of the Testament was not the same as the God of the New Testament, that Jesus merely had the appearance of a physical being, but was truly a spirit (denial of the incarnation), and that the resurrection would only be a spiritual resurrection, but not a physical one. These issues had to be answered by the church and were answered decisively by using the scriptures (see Colossians 1 &2).
In many ways the era of the church fathers was a golden age of apologetics, in fact some of the second century church fathers were called collectively “the apologists” and much of what we understand as orthodoxy was first expressed in their defenses of the faith. One of the key issues they dealt with was the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Some claimed that there was no resurrection, while others (Gnostics) argued that the resurrection of Christ was merely spiritual rather than bodily. In addition to this key area, Justin Martyr argued for the superiority of Christianity to Judaism in his “Dialogue with Trypho”; Irenaeus argued for the humanity and divinity of Christ, that God is the God of both the Law and the Gospel, for ex-nihilo (from nothing) creation and for the integrity and exclusivity of the four canonical Gospel accounts (there were many false gospel accounts circulating in the 2nd century); Tertulian defended Christianity against the challenges of the Pagan religions; while Clement of Rome answered the challenges of secular (Greek) philosophy and pointed out what truth they did contain was rooted in God’s revelation in nature or in the Hebrew Scriptures.
The later church father Augustine was also an active apologist. He defended the trinity against various heretical views, argued for a linear view of history, answered the problem of evil, and made a teleological argument for the existence of God, saying that since the universe exhibits the characteristics of having been designed, it must have a designer. He also was one of the first Christians to delve into the study of epistemology (the study of the basis of knowledge).
There were few challenges to the Christian world view during the middle ages, but that does not mean that important apologetic developments ceased. Anselm of Canterbury made the presuppositional statement that faith preceded reason, argued powerfully for the incarnation of Christ in his master work Cur Deus Homo, and advanced the ontological argument for the existence of God which is unique in that it is an argument that relies solely on thought and logic rather than on evidence and can be briefly summarized as “because man can conceive of a perfect God and because existence is a condition of perfection thus God must exist.” Thomas Aquinas was also active in the middle ages as a Christian thinker and apologist (although we would not affirm all of his thinking which was largely Roman Catholic). He developed and advanced both the cosmological argument for God (essentially that there cannot be an infinite regress of causes, that there must be an uncaused cause for creation and that the uncaused Cause is God) and the teleological argument discussed previously. He also asserted that all we can know of God cannot be found in nature and that scripture must form part of our basis of the knowledge of God.
The period of the reformation also saw much activity in the realm of apologetics. Obviously the main apologetic thrust of the Reformation period was the refutation of the errors of Roman Catholicism, however there were other issues, such as Calvin’s argument that special revelation and natural revelation work in concert in the heart of believers, an idea called the comprehensiveness of revelation, essentially that all facts are evidences for God.
The modern era brought many new challenges to Christianity. Growing out of the enlightenment, deists rejected the God the bible in favor of a god who was a divine clockmaker who had no interaction with the world, this challenge was ably answered by apologists such as Joseph Butler and William Palley. Another modern attack on Christianity came in the form of the radical skepticism of David Hume which claimed that nothing was knowable with certainty. This view was answered by Christian philosopher Thomas Reid who formulated “Common Sense Philosophy” (although not an apologist in the strictest sense).
In the post modern era in which we live, there have been a number of new apologetic challenges put to the church. Perhaps the greatest is the post modern assault on certainty. Essentially it claims that all truth claims are invalid and thus equally valid. A corollary to this is the threat of religious pluralism, which essentially says all religions are equally valid. This is an area of where much apologetic work still needs to be done, evaluating and refuting the world views of all of the various religions. This post modern era has also brought the challenges of the new atheist movement, which not only denies the existence of God, but makes radical truth claims about the impossibility of God and is virulently anti-Christian.
Challenges to the Faith have always been with us and will continue to be articulated by the enemies of the gospel until the Lord Returns. As believers we should be keenly aware that while our times may be unique in the particular attacks on the gospel that come at us, we stand in a long line of believers that have had to give an answer for the hope that is in us.
Up Next: What does the bible say about apologetics?