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Controlling the “therefore”

June 26, 2011

Some time ago I answered an email from someone who was planning to meet with an old high school friend and talk about Christianity. He wanted to know which argument is better for coming “to the conclusion of God.” I’m going to paste in part of my response. What I wanted to do was to get him to think in a fundamental way about what his “project” was. My concern is that we apologists spend too much time thinking about our arguments and not enough about getting the person to deal with Christ.

Here’s my response with some later modifications and with some comments following.

Dear David,

Thanks for writing. My answer probably won’t be one you’d expect from an apologist! We typically want to go straight to what I might call “external” arguments, meaning arguments that purport to begin outside of Christian theology or Scripture. My recommendation, however, comes from my early apologetics training. My professor called his approach “backing into” apologetics from within the Christian frame. A good general approach is to begin with the gospel, and, as the person asks questions, back up, as it were, and answer them. Don’t go in looking for a fight; don’t assume the person is going to deny a cardinal doctrine and so begin with a defense.

So a good place to start (if she doesn’t start the conversation herself) is to ask, What do you understand the message of Christ to be? If she says she doesn’t know (or her answer indicates she doesn’t), tell her what it is. Presuppose God, identify Jesus as the sent one, tell her what He did for us, and tell her what He calls us to do.

If your friend questions the existence of God, what are her reasons for doubting? Paul said everyone knows God exists (Rom. 1:19-21; cf. Ps. 19:1-2). I think we should assume that’s true when we converse with people, which means talking like it is so. Just start talking as if God is a given. Ask her what she believes about God; what does she think He is like, etc. Be prepared with biblical descriptions of God (even if you don’t quote the Bible directly, as Paul did in Athens, recorded in Acts 17). If she insists she simply doesn’t believe He exists, then ask her why not and address her responses. Don’t automatically assume the burden of proof. Make her defend her lack of belief.

If she asks you why you believe in God, tell her the truth. Why do you believe God exists? Because of Pascal’s wager or the teleological argument or just because you always have believed and His existence is very obvious to you? Of course, you can go beyond the reasons you first had for believing. You can talk about how God’s existence is confirmed by such things as design in the universe, and the necessity for an eternal beginning to the universe (the cosmological argument). You can talk about how God gives a basis for morality that is universal and fixed. If the typical arguments aren’t sufficient for your own belief, why use them on her?

What’s really important here is that you find out what she thinks and respond to that. Answer her questions as best you can, even if you have to say you don’t know but you’ll get back to her. It’s so easy for Christians to forget that the point is to reach the person with the gospel of Christ, not to practice our favorite apologetic arguments. You may not even need any arguments; a simple presentation of the gospel and your own testimony of what Christ has meant in your life could be sufficient. Of course, you may have had an ongoing discussion that is beyond that now, and you may know that she’s going to have challenging questions. If so, be prepared to answer her questions, not the ones you’d like her to ask.

One more point. One problem apologists can have is putting more confidence in our arguments than in the Word of God and the work of the Spirit. We marshal our evidences or construct our logical arguments in ways that we know lead to the conclusions we want people to accept. The gospel isn’t an argument; it’s what God has done and what He says it means. If need be, we can fall back on arguments to address challenges or, when needed, to show that it is not contrary to sound reasoning. Remember that faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Rom. 10:17), and it the Word that is sharper than any two-edged sword (Heb. 4:12-13).

Let me know how the conversation goes.

Rick Wade

 

In apologetics (American apologetics, anyway), we typically work our way to a “therefore,” a conclusion to our argument: therefore, Jesus is the divine Son of God; therefore, there can by only one way to God; therefore, Jesus truly did rise from the dead. If an issue such as that is in view, then we should address it. We add up the evidences or we construct a valid syllogism so that we can be sure our “therefore” is true.

My point to David, although I didn’t phrase it this way, is that the “therefore” we should really be seeking is more the ending of a story (to use a word that’s starting to be overused) or of an event or encounter. This kind of “therefore” might be something like, therefore, he rejected what I said; therefore, he said we can talk more about it later; or (the one we pray for), therefore, he put his faith in Christ.

When our “therefore” is the conclusion of an argument, we can be satisfied when we’ve constructed and presented it well. But is that our real goal? Can we pat ourselves on the back over a well-constructed argument when the person has rejected it?

Why do we stay on the level or evidences and arguments? There are, I’m sure, a number of reasons. Frankly, I think one is that staying on that level is less risky for us; it’s the safe direction. Why? Because we can control the “therefore” of an argument. If we mess up an argument, we can work on it more and perfect it. Or if we do it well, we can be pleased with our performance. We’re in control of the “success” of the argument. But we can’t control the “therefore” of another person’s encounter with God.

A well-known Christian scholar and apologist in England told me once that American apologists talk to each other too much. When we do that, we certainly aren’t seeking conversion! If that’s our practice, then our only measure of success is how well our arguments fare when presented to our colleagues.

My answer to David—which is a message also to myself—is that, if we’re guilty of this, we need to shift our focus. The goal of Christian proclamation or testimony is persuasion, and apologetics is a useful tool in that endeavor. To that we’ve all been called.

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