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Apologetics and the “tool bag” metaphor

February 4, 2014

Several years ago I attended a conference in Europe for Christians in a wide variety of ministries. I was there to learn from apologists who do their work in places where secularism is more deeply ingrained than in the U.S.

The first time I attended the conference, I availed myself of a mentoring opportunity with a seasoned apologist in which, over breakfast, we talked about a variety of apologetical matters. At some point in our conversation he made a reference to the metaphor of a “tool bag” holding a collection of evidences and arguments at the disposal of the apologist. Why he brought that up, I don’t know. He clearly was not happy with the idea. Had he looked at our web site and seen that I had used the metaphor? I can’t find anything on Probe’s web site about that now, but maybe that’s where it was from. Whatever may have prompted the comment, he didn’t elaborate and I didn’t ask, for time was short. I wish now I had; maybe one day I’ll get the opportunity!

I assume the problem for him was the mechanical sound of the metaphor. The image of tools brings up images of machines working in . . . well, mechanical ways. Few or many parts are linked together such that, when the machine begins to run, each piece does its part in an impersonal, automatic, cause-and-effect way to accomplish a predetermined end. There is no subtlety, no sensitivity to changing situations. “Mechanical,” in this sense, is often contrasted with “organic,” which carries the ideas of being living and adaptable.

I don’t know if this is what the man had in mind, but I’m going to pretend it is to explain what I had in mind when I used the tool bag metaphor and, in defending the idea, make a few comments about the practice of apologetics.

One important point should be made at the beginning. There is a big difference between the mechanics of a machine and that of a mechanic using his tools. The former is impersonal and unthinking; the latter is not. The parallel isn’t between the parts of a machine playing their role with a predetermined outcome in mind, on the one hand, and what one might expect a certain argument or collection of arguments to accomplish, on the other. The question is how the person handles the tools (whether real or metaphorical).

I started using the metaphor because of my background as an inside machinist and my own use of tools at home. I worked in a couple of shipyards (I completed a four-year apprenticeship at the first one). As inside machinists we had our tools close to hand in toolboxes and cabinets. We might have to work across the shop from where our toolboxes were, but if we found we needed something, we could easily walk over and pick it up. Not so if we had to go on a ship to inspect or work on a piece of machinery. If you’ve ever been on a Navy ship you’ll know how much walking and climbing you have to do to get around. It could be very annoying to get down in the engine room and learn you needed a tool you hadn’t put in your bag. Up the ladders you’d go to the main deck and down the gangplank to the pier and back around to the shop. You’d grab the tool (and maybe some others you then thought you might possibly need; who wants to do it again?) and retrace your steps. To avoid this happening again, the next time you’d load up your bag with what you think you might possibly need even if you went a bit overboard. With experience, you learn what is reasonable to take along.

When we teach apologetics to Christians, we have two goals in mind: to feed their understanding of the intellectual strength of their faith for their own edification, and to help prepare them for challenges they might encounter from nonbelievers. No one can be prepared for everything, so we give them what they are likely to need given the contexts within which they live.

Now comes the potentially troubling part of all this. If the person uses the “tools” — the evidences and arguments — in a heavy-handed, “mechanical” way, the result will not likely be good. I put “mechanical” in quotation marks because of the way we might tend to think about the use of tools. A good mechanic, however,  won’t use tools this way.

There are three important points to make about the proper use of tools: the right tool should be used in the right way and at the right time.

First, the right tool has to be chosen. For example, if had to tighten the nuts on a valve bonnet, I wouldn’t use an outside mic (micrometer caliper). A mic looks a little wrench-like with one part remaining fixed while the other opens and closes like an adjustable wrench. But it isn’t a wrench. To use an example in more familiar territory for most people, one wouldn’t use a sledge hammer when a small ball peen would do. You may have heard the quip: to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Sometimes mechanics cheat and use a tool that really isn’t the right one, but the one that will be the most effective is preferred.

In a similar way, Christians can get fixated on certain apologetic arguments that they love and, rather than finding out what the person really wants or needs to know, they turn the discussion until they get to use their favorite arguments. The person may really just need some reason to believe that God loves them, but the apologist, hot out of a class on theistic proofs, finds a way to bring in the cosmological argument (or even worse, the ontological argument, which has to be the worst argument for persuasion). For the machinist working on a valve, if the problem is a cracked seat, tightening down the bonnet with his favorite 24″ adjustable isn’t to  fix it. Apologists have to pay attention to know what the person’s concerns are, for it’s the person we should be focusing on, not the arguments first of all.

Second, even if the mechanic knows what the proper tool for the job is, he has to use it properly. Most any mechanic will know that an adjustable wrench should be used with the force against the fixed jaw, not against the movable one. Putting it on the latter is a good way to break the wrench. Machinists use micrometer calipers (mics) to measure work pieces. Mics measure in thousandths of an inch (ten-thousandths if the vernier scale is used), so one has to learn the proper sensitivity in order to tighten the mic enough but not too much. It takes practice to get just the right touch.

Likewise, apologists have to learn how to use arguments. Something new apologists like to do is find opportunities to “do apologetics,” meaning to go out and find someone to debate with! If a person really does want to do just this, then the apologist can have at it, although he should keep in mind Paul’s “with gentleness and reverence” command. Most people we encounter are not going to be interested in that. It’s easy to get carried away and wind up committing intellectual assault. I’ve seen it before. People attend a debate, and walk out boasting about how their guy nailed the other guy, tore him to shreds. Is that what it’s about? In his book The End of Apologetics, Myron Penner relates a story about a self-described atheist-Roman Catholic whom Penner could see still had a deep spiritual hunger. A couple of seminarians engaged the man in a conversation and let loose with their “shiny, new apologetic six-guns.” The man was offended and upset by the experience. It’s unfortunate that Penner used this to illustrate modern apologetics in action in his brief against it. Not all modern apologists wield their arguments like bludgeons. However, anyone who’s been in this kind of work for a long time has seen this happen (or has maybe done it themselves!). It happens when delivering sound arguments is seen as the end rather than helping people come to the place of confronting–or being confronted by–Christ. For some (many?), the apologist has done his job when the argument is completed. The “therefore” is “Jesus rose from the dead,” or, “God exists,” or, “miracles can indeed happen” rather than being “therefore, the person gained a better understanding of who Jesus is and why this matters to him,” or something along those lines. Apologetics isn’t equivalent to philosophy of religion, although the latter can be part of the former. Christian defense has, or should have, a bigger goal.

Third, and to develop further the point just discussed, not only does the right tool have to be used in the right way, but it should be used when it is right to do so. It should be seen as just one of the many tools we have at hand to help people see Jesus. The apologist isn’t merely an apologist; he is a believer in Christ who is called to bear witness for him with encounters with non-Christians colored by Jesus’ call to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. We’re bringing people to Christ, not just increasing their knowledge. A conversation with this in mind likely won’t merely call for apologetic arguments. Imagine a person who is angry about the suffering and death of a someone very near and dear. Does he simply need a good understanding of the free will defense? Might he need to hear that the suffering of his loved one is, by contrast, proof of God’s existence? Maybe such things will be helpful along the way, but the apologist might need to keep the six-holstered. In that one conversation, the Christian may have to pull from his bag, as it were, his understanding of the Bible (using sound interpretative principles) and of basic theology. He may go from explaining a doctrine at one moment to engaging in pastoral counseling and encouragement the next and then to explaining why he is convinced his belief that Jesus, the one who knows suffering first-hand, really is the divine Son of God. The need determines the proper tool, and love governs how it is used. 

To sum up: The metaphor of a tool bag should not be a problem in thinking about apologetics. In fact, I find it helpful when I think about how a good mechanic uses his tools: the right tool used when needed and used in the proper way with the focus not on the tool but on the job to be done. When it isn’t needed, it stays in the bag. When it is, it is used with dexterity and care to the end that the item is repaired and in good working order. This isn’t to champion the metaphor as one that everyone should use. It’s just a metaphor. If it doesn’t work for someone, it shouldn’t be used. I hope, however, that the principles learned by it will be of help.

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