by Michael L. Gowens
First Peter 3:15 is frequently cited as the biblical basis for the science, or formal discipline, known as Christian apologetics. “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15, KJV).
The phrase “to give an answer” is translated from the Greek word apologia, a root that gives us our English word “apology.” Originally this term did not mean what it does today — i.e. “to offer an excuse for a perceived wrong” — but “to give a defense for an idea perceived as false.” Apologia refers to “a reply,” and appears in classical literature in terms of a case made in a legal dispute.
As a formal science, apologetics is the discipline of defending the truth claims of Christianity against criticism and popular misconceptions by means of rational arguments and empirical evidences. In post-apostolic times, both Justin Martyr and Tertullian played the role of Christian apologists, writing to the Roman emperor to defend Christians against accusations they were atheists (because they refused to acknowledge the Roman pantheon), cannibals (because they observed the Lord’s Supper), and seditious (because they refused to participate in emperor worship).
Over time, the discipline of apologetics grew to include not only the practice of defending the faith against false accusations but also the more offensive strategy of advancing the faith by showing the superiority of a biblical worldview. Modern Christian apologists frequently tackle the false dichotomy of Faith vs. Reason, or the Bible vs. Science, showing that Faith is not the antithesis of Reason, but is, instead, inherently reasonable. The importance of correcting this stereotype in popular culture that religion is inherently superstitious while science is intrinsically rational cannot be overstated.
Why is apologetics important? Every believer should cultivate the ability to state both what he believes and why he believes it because God commands it (1 Peter 3:15). We have a divine mandate for apologetics. Jude 3 reiterates the imperative for biblical apologetics: “…earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.” Likewise, the apostle Paul recognized the need to be prepared not only for the more positive task of the “confirmation of the gospel” but also the more negative task of the “defense of the gospel” (Philippians 1:7, 17). So long as this fallen world system continues to make false charges against the church and the gospel message she proclaims, it will be necessary to “be ready to give an answer.”
Sadly, however, some professing Christians today do not share my enthusiasm for the importance of apologetics. In response to some of my comments on social media about the 2014 Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate, several well-meaning folks objected to the very idea of apologetics. One person objected on the basis of 1 Corinthians 2:14, which says, “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, for they are spiritually discerned.” Another concurred saying, “Arguing with an unregenerate person is like arguing with a fence post.” Such resistance to the legitimacy of the discipline itself signals the need for “an apology (defense) for apologetics.”
For those of us who understand the doctrine of total depravity, the argument against apologetics from 1 Corinthians 2:14 is certainly valid. The Christian may be able to cite evidence after evidence to validate his claims, but if the other person has no “ears to hear” then he will never be convinced. Instead, he will, by virtue of his sinful predisposition, patently dismiss the evidence or interpret it according to preconceived biases and fallen presuppositions.
I replied to the well-meaning detractor that I certainly agreed with the point regarding the necessity of new birth prior to faith, but insisted that the purpose of apologetics is not to convert the unregenerate. Rather, apologetics aims to (a) silence the gainsayers (1 Peter 2:15), and (b) strengthen believers who risk having their faith shaken by skeptics and critics.
I am skeptical of the popular emphasis in contemporary Christian circles that equates apologetics with “evangelism” or even “pre-evangelism,” the practice of using apologetics as a prerequisite to evangelism, which is an emphasis popular among folks who subscribe to “decisional regeneration.” The purpose of apologetics — in contrast to evangelism — is to guard fellow believers against deception and potential apostasy, not to change the mind of the critic. The conversion of the critic would certainly be an added benefit, but must not be the primary goal of apologetics.
Another respondent objected to my interpretation of 1 Peter 3:15, focusing on the expression “…him that asketh you.” This individual argued that this verse does not justify the more negative task of “defending” the faith against detractors, but suggests the more positive practice of simply telling honest inquirers why you love the Lord.
I replied that the “inquiry” referenced in 1 Peter 3:15 may be either sincere or adversarial, but the context seems to support the latter. Both 1 Peter 2 and 1 Peter 3 focus on the theme of Christian persecution. That fact alone supports the interpretation that the inquiry specified in 1 Peter 3:15 was likely an adversarial one. “Be ready to defend your faith when you are questioned about your heartfelt convictions,” Peter says to his readers. The very next verse, 1 Peter 3:16, adds further support to my claim: “Having a good conscience, that whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ.”
The celebrated Baptist preacher C. H. Spurgeon was no fan of the discipline of apologetics. He argued, “The Bible is its own defense. Defending the Bible is like defending a lion; all you have to do is let it out of its cage.” I concur with Mr. Spurgeon if he refers to those who are already believers. To detractors like Bill Nye, however, who reject the authority of Scripture and scoff at the very idea of Divine revelation (Nye repeatedly referenced “Ken Ham’s interpretation of a 3,000-year-old book translated into American English”), Spurgeon’s position smacks of a retreat in the face of challenge.
The bottom line is that as long as skeptics and unbelievers continue to try to discredit God’s word and the Christian faith, it will be necessary to both defend Biblical truth claims and to “cast down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Though many professing Christians disapprove of anything perceived as “negative,” there is much untruth to “root out, pull down, throw down and destroy” before we can “build and plant” (Jer. 1:9).
Although Christian apologists generally agree on the basic goal of apologetics, they differ widely on the proper methodology. There are three basic methods, or schools of thought, in Christian apologetics: presuppositional, classical and evidential. Each has its passionate proponents and critics, but the best approach, in my opinion, may very well be a combination of all three.
Presuppostionalism was popularized by the late Cornelius van Til and Francis Schaeffer. Its basic approach is to treat apologetics as a means of pre-evangelism. The presuppostional apologist presupposes (hence, the name) the truth of the Bible and argues that the Christian worldview must be true because the contrary is impossible given the world in which we live. For example, presuppositionalism might argue, “Without the God of the Bible, one cannot account for why people are horrified by the crimes of Nazi Germany. God’s existence as the absolute, moral lawgiver is the reason people agree that those acts were objectively evil and not merely situationally wrong.”
In his debate with Bill Nye “the Science Guy,” Ken Ham employed a presuppositional approach. I found myself wishing during the course of the debate that Ham would pull from his arsenal of “creation-science” evidence fact after fact to refute Nye’s claims. Instead, he spent the bulk of his time quoting the Bible and talking about how Jesus Christ can change a person’s life. The next morning, my oldest son expressed his frustration at Ham’s approach, saying, “I think Ham did a good job, although it’s hard to argue with an atheist about the age of the earth by quoting Bible verses … I feel that Nye spent the majority of his time mocking religion and promoting a universe that is millions and millions of years old instead of presenting arguments to support his stance on evolution. Ham could have stacked evidence on top of evidence, if he just would.” My assessment precisely.
Though presuppositionalism has merit as an apologetic method, it errs at the point of the premise of the argument. Again, I’m no fan of the idea that apologetics is primarily a form of evangelism. Its primary purpose, according to 1 Peter 3:15 and Jude 3, is to strengthen the confidence of those who already believe and to “put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.”
In the interest of clarification, I tend to think of apologetics and evangelism as two distinct disciplines with two mutually important goals. The popular trend to equate them, or to view apologetics as a subcategory of evangelism, necessarily influences the apologist’s methodological paradigm, i.e. presuppostional, classical, or evidential. The fundamental goal of evangelism (or the presentation of the gospel of God’s grace in Christ) is to make a convert of one who seeks light and understanding (cf. Mt. 28:19; Acts 8:31). The principal goal of apologetics (or the defense of the faith from detractors) is to safeguard the integrity of God’s word in the face of challenges that threaten to undermine the faith of fellow, or potential, believers. Indeed, the two disciplines may overlap at times, but defining them in terms of the identical goal of winning the critic necessarily results in diluting the impact of one or the other. In my opinion, evangelism, the more positive discipline, generally obscures the essentially negative discipline of apologetics in these cases. Isn’t that a good thing? Many postmodern folk think it is. I suspect, however, that in the effort to win a critic by a positive presentation of the gospel, those who are weak in the faith and susceptible to deception by sophisticated arguments are frequently forgotten and an opportunity to buttress them is missed in this scenario.
The Ham/Nye debate illustrates my point. Ham was trying to win Nye, but if he had taken an evidentialist — as opposed to a presuppositionalist — approach, he may have more effectively refuted Nye’s arguments and strengthened the faith of fellow believers. Mr. Ham would have been better served in this publicized venue, in other words, to present arguments in support of Biblical creation than to try to evangelize Mr. Nye. Of course, my conviction to define the discipline of apologetics more narrowly than many is a break from popular trends, but I believe is supported by 1 Peter 3 and Jude 3; moreover, it necessarily influences my methodological preference for the classical and evidentialist paradigms.
Classical apologetics focuses on logical arguments to sustain the truth claims of Christianity. The late Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield (as well as contemporary apologists William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias and Norman Geisler) subscribed to the classical apologetic model. Because secular philosophy concerns itself primarily with classical arguments, the classical model seems to be a good choice for arguing the big philosophical ideas, such as the existence of God.
Two popular arguments for God’s existence from the classical model are the cosmological and the teleological arguments. The cosmological argument (sometimes called the “cause and effect” argument) for God’s existence argues as follows:
- Every effect must have a cause.
- The universe is an effect.
- The universe has a cause.
- That cause is the God of the Bible.
The teleological argument (often called the “design” argument) for the existence of God might be framed like this:
- The universe manifests evidence of design.
- Design demands a designer.
- The universe has a designer.
- That designer is the God of the Bible.
Perhaps the most well-known example of the use of the teleological argument derives from William Paley’s book on “natural religion.” Paley argued that if he found a watch on the ground while walking through a field, he would naturally and rightfully conclude that it was the product of a “watchmaker.” Likewise, the order and design in nature argues for a Creator.
The principal objection to the classical apologetic model is that, as a formal system, it is inaccessible to the average person. The substance of classical arguments, however, tends to resonate with commonsensical people.
Finally, the evidential apologetics model makes use of empirical evidence to validate the truth claims of the Bible. It employs a forensic, or inductive, approach, similar to the approach a defense attorney might use in courtroom evidence. The Oxford intellectual C. S. Lewis and John Warwick Montgomery were evidentialists. Popular contemporary evidentialists include Josh McDowell, Frank Turek and many Christian pastors due to this approach lending itself well to pulpit communication. The late D. James Kennedy (1930-2007) likely did as much as anyone to popularize evidentialism in the modern era.
Evidentialists employ archaeological findings, manuscript evidence, the fulfillment of predictive prophecy, textual criticism and various forms of historiography in order to corroborate biblical claims. The principal goal of evidential apologetics is to show that the Bible is credible, reliable and historically accurate.
Which approach or method is best? Should the apologist primarily use scripture, or is there also a place for a rational defense and empirical evidence? I suspect, again, that a combination of the three, depending on the circumstances, is the best answer.
Interestingly, the Lord Jesus Christ employed an evidentialist approach with Thomas (“Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself”), and Paul used all three schools of thought in the resurrection chapter 1 Corinthians 15. Paul argued that Christ’s resurrection was “according to the scriptures” (the presuppositional model), that there were witnesses (the evidentialist model), that he had personally seen the risen Christ (empirical evidence, again), and that unbelief in Christ’s resurrection produces a logical absurdity, e.g. “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain,” (the classical approach).
My 1993 book Be Ready to Answer was originally motivated by a pastoral concern for some young adults in our church who were in college. They came to me on the weekends with questions about ideas to which they were being exposed at school. One young man had a professor who seemed intent on undermining the Bible. He ridiculed people who believed in the Bible, calling them “ignorant” and “uneducated,” and repeatedly claimed the Bible was full of “contradictions” and “mistakes.”
The challenge to these young men and women was serious enough to give me an incentive to offer them a bit of help. Though the professor was never converted, the young people were saved from his attempt to shake their faith. They emerged from the experience substantially stronger Christians with greater confidence in the convictions they held. If a study of Christian apologetics produces such an outcome, we have reason to be incredibly thankful. It is for this reason that the discipline of Christian apologetics must be robustly maintained and nurtured in the modern era.
Photo of Bill Nye “the Science Guy” is courtesy of HighEdWeb.