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What Christ has put together . . .

February 28, 2013

Over the years I’ve heard and seen the issue raised of the need to put (or keep) apologetics and evangelism together. Recently I pulled down my old copy of Richard Pratt’s Every Thought Captive, a popular-level book on presuppositional apologetics. Pratt talks about the importance of keeping the two together. We make a mistake, he says, if we identify apologetics with evangelism because that might lead the Christian who is interested in apologetics to insist on a person taking note of certain evidences or arguments before believing when that might not be necessary. Or the Christian might, in his evangelistic fervor, brush questions aside and say “just believe.”[1]

My question is, how did the two get separated in the first place?

I understand how conceptually the two are distinguished. Evangelism has to do with proclaiming the gospel with a view to persuading people to believe (in the full sense, not just cognitive belief). Apologetics has to do with responding to challenges first of all. It’s grown beyond that to include most everything having to do with an encounter between belief and unbelief: giving reasons why we believe the Bible (and all it contains) is true, correcting wrong notions about doctrines and practices, showing the problems of other religions and philosophies, and all with a view to producing cognitive belief. Sometimes we want to produce living faith as well, but we forget (or don’t think about) what Paul said he wouldn’t do in Corinth:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

Someone who simply cries “uncle” during an argument and admits defeat isn’t grounding his faith in the right place.

In Europe I saw evidences that this distinction isn’t as much a practical problem for apologists. David Robertson, pastor of St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee, Scotland, and director of Solas – Centre for Public Christianity (, uses the phrase “persuasive evangelism.” He uses the tools of apologetics where needed, but the goal is conversion to Christ.

But again I ask, how did evangelism and apologetics become divided in practice? Is this just a symptom of a modernism which loves to slice and dice everything into neat compartments? Whatever the case, this division gets no support from the New Testament.

At the International Society of Christian Apologetics conference this spring I’ll present a paper I have titled “Forensics and Faithfulness: Defense in the Context of the New Testament.” My entry into the discussion is the fact that apologists typically justify their work by 1 Peter 3:15: “In your hearts honor 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.” When I look at the involved and difficult arguments formulated by apologists over the centuries, I can’t help but wonder if they are what Peter had in mind. I don’t think they are precluded by what Peter said. But surely he didn’t think people in his generation would be able to engage in such intellectual battles. Lay people today aren’t likely to either.

This concern raises a few questions. One is, what can be rightly expected of Christians of all educational backgrounds in responding to Peter’s exhortation? Another, and the one I focus on in the paper and here, is, what in general did Peter have in mind regarding giving an answer?

This issue came to the forefront of my thinking when I began attending the European Leadership Forum (formerly in Hungary, now moved to Poland) and has stayed with me since, so I’ve been on the lookout for books and articles which could help me think through it. I can’t remember how, but a year or so ago I came across a copy of the book The New Testament Concept of Witness by Allison A. Trites.[2] It is the published version of his doctoral dissertation. In it he presents an extensive study of the witness motif in the NT, and he includes discussions of it in ancient Greek thought and in the OT. The word Peter uses for “make a defense” is, of course, apologia which is a legal term. It had a special application to matters of the court, but it also referred to controversy outside the legal realm. Being in that family of terms, I found Trites’ book to be very helpful in understanding what Peter likely had in mind .

I won’t present my whole paper here. I’ll simply note three things.

First, when we think of witness today, we typically think in terms of personal evangelism which we might carry out in a variety of ways. We almost immediately bring the non-believer into the discussion personally as we talk about being lost and in need of a savior. Of course, the personal application is important. But what I see in the NT is primarily the proclamation that salvation has come, bearing witness to Christ. Here is an example of Peter’s witness (from his encounter with Cornelius).

As for the word that [God] sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (Acts 10:36-43).

In personal evangelism, we can so quickly move to the individual’s need for salvation that we haven’t paused to tell them about Jesus. (I was surprised by the tack taken in an Alpha course I attended where, in the first talk about who Jesus was, the speaker spent most of the time presenting an evidential argument for the resurrection. I wonder how many of the non-believers present–those for whom the course was designed–knew anything at all about Jesus. Shouldn’t that have come first?) So bearing witness is presenting Christ first of all. Once the person knows who Jesus is and what he did, then personal application can be made.

Second, the NT idea of witness draws on the OT understanding. A witness in both cases is both a witness and advocate. He doesn’t merely present the facts; he tries to persuade his opponent to believe him and to act accordingly.

Third, Jesus brings the two together in one big command given to his disciples. Here are two passages in Luke:

And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges [ὁμολογέω] me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me [ἀρνέομαι] before men will be denied before the angels of God. And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself [ἀπολογέομαι] or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say (Lk. 12:8-17:).

But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness [μαρτύριον]. Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer [ἀπολογέομαι], for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict (Lk. 21:12-15; emphasis added).

The Greek terms in brackets are the root forms of the words used. They are all courtroom terms: acknowledge (or confess), deny, make a defense, bear witness. This isn’t just intellectual wrangling. Charges are brought and a defense must be made.

But note what Jesus said about these occasions. When called upon to make a defense, “This will be your opportunity to bear witness.” Typically the apostles were called upon to defend themselves first of all, but since their actions were informed by what they proclaimed, they had to explain that as well. Some people believe Peter had actual legal challenges in mind that applied to the apostles, the eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus’ life, but I don’t see why it is necessary to limit it to that.[3] The apostles, as eyewitnesses, had a special role as witnesses, but we, as we pass on the message handed down by the apostles, bear witness as well. And, as noted previously, courtroom terminology applied to other controversy as well.

So what did Peter have in mind in 1 Peter 3:15? Was he thinking first of all about marshaling impressive evidences and arguments and going toe-to-toe on an intellectual level with critics? That kind of thing can be included (done properly), but what I think Peter had in mind was this. Ordinary Christians going about their lives as governed by the gospel they believed were open to criticisms and challenges by non-believers. They were to explain themselves when challenged (with gentleness and reverence; no verbal abuse in return). But also, if they were true to the teaching of Jesus and the examples of the apostles, they should turn that demand for an explanation into an opportunity to bear witness.

Thus, apologetics and evangelism, if we maintain those categories, are aspects of the bigger practice of bearing witness to Jesus: we answer questions, we clarify, we challenge other belief systems,[4] and we persuade. It’s all of a piece. If we don’t have as our trajectory pointing people to Jesus, understanding that there are interruptions and that such conversations often are conducted in stages, we aren’t doing defense as seen in the NT.


1. Richard Pratt, Every Thought Captive (Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 1979), 83

2.Allison A. Trites, The New Testament Concept of Witness (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1977).

3. Trites limits it to the courtroom (NT Concept, 213-14); Richard Bauckham believes the role of witness referred only to Jesus’ immediate followers, his eyewitnesses, not later ones. He notes that Andreas Kostenberger disagrees (in The Missions of Jesus and the Disciples According to the Fourth Gospel). See Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 389-90.

4. Regarding challenging other beliefs, scholars see a “lawsuit” in Scripture (what Bauckham calls the “cosmic trial motif”). They note a connection, for example, between Isaiah 40-55 and the Gospel of John in which Yahweh and Jesus bring suit, as it were, against nonbelief: Yahweh against the nations and their gods, Jesus against the Jews as representatives of unbelief in general. If anyone should be on the defensive, it should be nonbelievers.

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