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Maybe the gospel as “pre-apologetics”?

February 3, 2015

Christian apologists have a (relatively) new bad guy to contend with: Stephen Fry. Here is a link to a response to his recent comments about God that includes the video that started the brouhaha:

Here’s another response that includes links to still others:

Getting involved in this kind of debate (albeit from a distance) was a significant aspect of my training in apologetics because it was a kind of safe hands-on; claims were made by real antagonists to Christianity, and I could think through the answers offered by others while working on my own, and all without having to look the objector in the face (listening to NPR provided me with many opportunities to do this years ago).

But I’ll have to say, the whole project gets tiresome. The same kinds of arguments keep on coming, and I don’t see any dent made in them outside the Christian community. I’m assuming here that if people come to Christ and are taught to think well, then their beliefs will spill out into their lives where they touch the world around them. That isn’t happening. Are we just preaching to the choir? Are these fun intellectual exercises for people who are interested?

There are two broad “audiences” for apologetics–Christians and non-Christians. I can think of good reasons why some (many?) Christians aren’t having an influence on matters connected to the intellect. I’m concerned here more with the influence of apologists–or lack of it–in the intellectual public square. Why aren’t Christian beliefs showing up in public debates as reasonable contenders? Shall we continue blaming that on the “media elite” and on secular universities? With all the intellectual ammunition found in the apologetics world in America, why isn’t it having a greater effect?

To be quite honest–and really blunt–I don’t see anything good coming from the writings and lectures and debates of apologists on a wide scale in America. Why isn’t Christianity having a greater influence, on an intellectual level, in America? Some might respond that changing our culture shouldn’t be our concern except as an outgrowth of the change wrought in people. I agree with that. But where is any indication of widespread change in the thinking of individuals (in favor of Christianity, of course)? Christianity once had some serious intellectual cachet in the US. I’m aware of some of the factors that changed that, but I wonder why, with the proliferation of apologetic material available to most everyone (everyone who has access to the internet, anyway), there isn’t a noticeable positive effect. It’s typical for apologists to point the finger at non-believers or at our secular society, but is that where the real blame lies? It’s rather trivial to blame the lack of a positive response of non-believers on non-belief. I don’t recall the apostles ever complaining about the moral and intellectual culture of their day as being the culprit, and I don’t think we should either.

We need to consider our side in this matter. Are we not answering the right questions? Are we applying what we know in the wrong way? Here’s another possibility. Could it be that the idea that apologetics best serves as “pre-evangelism” (a rather odd term, I think) has things turned around? If we are thinking in those terms, then we are going to be inclined to tune into intellectual matters first (especially those about which we already have answers), and either miss the questions really being asked or never quite get around to conveying the gospel message. Apologetics can be quite safe, as I think about it. We have our arguments and evidences down pat (we’re usually much better prepared to talk about such things than the non-believers we encounter), and we can feel pleased with ourselves if we answer objections and present our case (negative and positive apologetics, as some call it). In some cases, I’m sure, that really does prepare the way for receptivity of the gospel. But it also can be a stumbling block to people who aren’t thinking on that level, and it may prevent us from getting to what really needs to be heard.

I suggested that maybe this “pre-evangelism” idea is backwards. My first apologetics professor, Bill Luck (then at Moody Bible Institute), said we should “back into” apologetics, meaning that we should begin with the cross and back up to answer questions and objections as necessary. In other words, proclamation–or evangelism–comes first, and apologetics second. After all, it is the preaching of the cross that makes people wise unto salvation. Paul was so concerned about a possible misunderstanding among the Corinthians, that he felt led to make it plain what was most important: “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” He went on to say that “the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to use who are being saved it is the power of God.” I know that there was a situation in Corinth regarding the Sophists that likely influenced his words. But the preaching of the cross always defined Paul’s trajectory. The gospel was the point of the spear, so to speak. If we know ahead of time that there is a particular issue or belief that makes it hard for people to hear the gospel, we should address that. But the default is the presentation of the gospel. If we keep our focus on arguments and evidences, even making that our strategy (“pre-evangelism” again), might we well be missing opportunities to bring the real change into people’s lives that the gospel promises to make? Might we find ourselves waiting for a positive response to our apologetics before getting to the point? Might apologetics sometimes actually be a hindrance to the proclamation of the gospel?

When we are thinking theologically and pastorally, we acknowledge that hearts must change before lives are changed and people are set on course to develop a Christian understanding of life and the world. Apologists point out often that Paul said we are transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2), but did he have apologetics in mind as the catalyst for renewal? In what did this renewal consist? Paul’s command is sandwiched in a passage about presenting ourselves sacrificially to God and learning what His will is–“what is good and acceptable and perfect”–and living it out through the context of the church. Was he speaking of learning arguments and evidences for the faith or doing a comparative study of worldviews, or was he referring to what he said earlier in Romans 8 about setting our minds on the things of the Spirit rather than things of the flesh? I think learning arguments and worldviews can play a role in shaping our minds to know God, but are they what is most important? Or do they rather serve a supporting role, brought in on an as-needed basis, for the first-order project of knowing God and setting our minds on His concerns so as to live out His righteousness? It is too easy, when thinking of this passage in apologetic terms, to read into it the intellectual concerns of interest to apologists today and miss the main point, that we  should set our minds on the Spirit so that we may put to death the deeds of the body and experience the life and peace that flows out of living in keeping with what is good and acceptable and perfect.

A similar substitution is seen in the way 1 Peter 3:15 is used by apologists. I won’t go into this in detail here. I discussed it briefly in the paper “Faithful Witness: Defense in the Context of the New Testament” on this blog site. The important point here is that Peter’s call Christians to faithfulness in bearing witness by explaining themselves and their behavior to challenges (which could be done in some instances by a simple testimony as Paul did before Agrippa in Acts 26) has been used to justify requiring Christians to learn a variety of arguments and evidences for the faith as though that was what Peter had in mind. The latter can serve the former, and it can be very helpful to learn them, especially given the ignorance in our society about what Christians believe and why? But that isn’t Peter’s first order concern. (See Luke 21:10-19 for a likely background for Peter’s exhortation.)

How much of the intellectual is needed before we get to the simple message of the cross? Do we assume that the non-believers we meet fit the description we learn in apologetics classes of the contemporary skeptic? Do we typically assume we’re talking to a Stephen Fry?

I don’t agree with Bill Luck’s evidentialism (a method he learned from John Warwick Montgomery), but I agree with both of those men that we need to begin with the gospel (Montgomery told us that if you sit down on a plane by a paleontologist you shouldn’t start debating evolution with him, since he’s forgotten more than you’ve learned; rather you should start with the cross). I dare say that most people do not need the services of Christian apologists to come to genuine faith. Although–and I hasten to add this to ward off possible misunderstanding–we should indeed be prepared to answer questions and not fall back into a “just believe and don’t think” attitude.

I attended a webinar recently in which the speaker–a well-known apologist–talked about the push-back he got at a conference in Europe to his method of simply planting seeds, of not looking for a conversion right away when talking to an non-believer. Of course, we should never expect anything when bearing witness to people. We’re talking to people, not computers who can be expected to respond appropriately to appropriate input. But does the reluctance we might reasonably expect mean we don’t proclaim and explain the gospel up front? (One thing the man could have addressed is the possible significance of social and cultural factors on how one evangelizes; maybe Europe is different from America in that regard. It could be that a one-size-fits-all approach is wrong-headed. Of course, it could be that thinking in terms of “method” is wrong-headed in itself, but I’ll leave that for another day.) The worldview of the Greeks in Paul’s day (and of the Jews, for that matter) didn’t leave much room for a God who becomes flesh and dies for people out of love for them, and then rises from the dead, never to die again. Did Paul use the method of “planting seeds”? Surely, what we say can function like that. But should that be our method? Someone might point out that Paul didn’t live in a post-Christian, “been there, done that” era. Different times require different strategies. But that doesn’t argue for a particular intellectual approach–planting intellectual seeds–although it can include it. Maybe of greater value would be Christians actually living like Christians and, as some atheists have urged, not pussy-footing around about what we believe. Simply understanding the difference between modern apologetics (the formal practice of developing answers to objections, put simply) and New Testament defense (witness-bearing in light of a challenge) would go a long way toward setting us on a better course.

We are involved in a spiritual battle, and winning (meaning, in this context, leading people into discipleship that involves intellectual transformation that in turn spills out into public life) is only going to come about by the regeneration and transformation of individuals that only the message of the cross can produce; clarified by our arguments if necessary, but never taking second place behind them. We aren’t having an influence in the intellectual realm, not because we don’t have the ideas and answers, but to a great extent because not enough Americans are coming to genuine faith which would (or should) incline them to “think Christianly,” as Harry Blamires put it. Apologists cannot be satisfied to sit in their clubs, polishing their arguments, and then, delivering their knowledge to the people outside, complain when they meet resistance or feel triumphant when they silence their opponents. We must put first things first.


From → Apologetics

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