What is the Value of Apologetics?
There are, on my view, a variety of values that can be had by practicing what we call Apologetics. Let’s first say what Apologetics is as a discipline. In its most general sense, apologetics is a preparatory discipline where one readies oneself to commend and defend the truth of Christianity. What immediately comes to mind for many of us are the overly cerebral arguments one may offer in defense of the faith. These are the ones that, for many, cause immediate eye glazing to occur. They may include formal arguments for God’s existence; historical evidence for the resurrection; addressing challenges, such as the so-called problem of evil; alleged contradictions in Scripture; and alleged moral issues in Scripture as well as a whole host of other academic topics. These are indeed in the corpus of Apologetics topics. However, on my view, commending and defending the faith may at times be much less cerebral.
Apologetics is a preparatory discipline where one readies oneself to commend and defend the truth of Christianity.
In fact, when I share my testimony of how Jesus profoundly impacted my life, I see this as a powerful apologetic of my faith, especially to those who walked with me through that journey. My story won’t make it into the professional journals, but it nonetheless is powerful evidence (at least for me and those that know me) that Christianity is true. I would hope that we would all grow in our reasons for our faith that should probably include the more cerebral and challenging material along with growing in our biblical and theological literacy. But the point is that the more cerebral stuff is not necessary to have a very reasonable faith, or so I would argue.
Why, then, is being prepared to commend and defend the faith valuable? I’ll here outline three primary values and a final bonus.
Weighing into culture debates
First, Apologetics is valuable for weighing into the at large culture debates. This is the most public that Apologetics gets. This effort often requires academic degrees and is fought through journal articles, books, public debates and other academic forums. This is a crucially important task, but it is also one that is performed by the smallest number. Now I hope that the number of folks who are equipped to do this work continues to grow, and I am very excited for my part in training the next generation of Apologists. So I don’t want to minimize this task, since again I see it as crucially important, but I would recognize that many folks will only get to support these efforts by buying the books and attending the conferences rather than writing the books and doing the teaching.
Winning the lost
Second, Apologetics is valuable for winning the lost. I think Apologetics is extremely valuable as it relates to evangelism. However, I am the first to admit that Apologetics has some significant limits in this regard. There are many people who are closed off and hardhearted to the gospel to the degree that no amount of cogent reasoning will solve. That said, a strong and thoughtful defense can sometimes stick with a person, make them lay awake thinking about it, and can sometimes free up a small space of doubt that perhaps the Lord would use. This, it seems to me, happens, and I think we ought to be faithful to address these folks with love and firmness, having respect without matching the vitriol. But I’m much more concerned about those who are genuinely searching or at least have a few questions that have always bothered them and kept them from opening their hearts and minds in a fuller way to the truths of the gospel. In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul talks about there being ideas and speculations that oppose the knowledge of God. We are called to address these ideas (we are actually called to demolish and destroy them). It has been my experience that all it takes is addressing a worry or two, and a person may be freed up to respond to the offer of the gospel, as God draws that person to himself.
So Apologetics can help bring an unbeliever to intellectual assent, but I hope it’s clear that intellectual assent is not the same as saving faith. It is an important step toward saving faith, but it is not itself saving faith. Indeed, the American church is brimming with people who assent intellectually to the great truths of Christianity. It is one thing to say and even intellectually believe that God is in control of, say, our health and our finances, but it is another thing to place our faith in God in these respects.
Third, Apologetics is valuable for genuine discipleship. This might strike the reader as something of an oxymoron. Why should the process of discipleship involve defending the faith when those of us engaged in discipleship already believe these truths? When we come to faith, it is not as if we adopt wholesale a Christian worldview. The process of maturing as a believer involves being transformed by the renewing of your mind. Much of this involves becoming biblically and theologically literate. However, part of this journey should involve asking deep and searching questions and coming, through the work of the Spirit, to see one’s way through these questions. These questions will often have an apologetic shape but they should be worked on, in my view, as something of a devotional exercise as well as in community with other more mature believers. In other words, this sort of searching should not happen only prior to one’s conversion, and it should be a very normal part (though again not the whole thing) of growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Bonus for academics
A final value—something of a bonus especially for those of us in an academic setting. Apologetics is a discipline of disciplines. Apologetics is dominated by philosophical types, like myself. There are reasons for this, and there are a lot of paradigmatic apologetics questions that the philosopher is best suited to address. However, I have no real business teaching a class devoted to the historical evidence for the Gospels. This should be the responsibility of a New Testament historian. I know next to nothing about how to adjudicate the archaeological evidence related to the Old and New Testament claims. This is the responsibility of the Christian archaeologist. I know a bit about various other religious traditions, but this is largely a hobby for me and has not been an area of focused training. There are many issues in science, Old Testament exegesis, canonicity and issues related to systematic Theology that are likely not the Christian philosopher’s primary area of specialization. If we want to defend the faith properly, Apologetics should bring together all of these disciplines as a way to practically apply one’s discipline. In fact, this is one way academics from a broad swath of disciplines can work together with a common purpose. It seems like someone important once called us to that kind of unity of purpose.