Saturday, March 5, 2016
The Appalling State of Christian Apologetics
The Apostle Peter wrote, “but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.” The basis for Christian apologetics is found in this simple command. What does it look like to sanctify Christ in one’s heart? It means rather than regard man, his threats, and his intimidation tactics, we are to place Christ first, in the most sacred and cherished position possible. Christ is to be elevated above everything else we desire in this life. Christ is to be exalted above our family, our possessions, our career, and even our reputation. The Greek word hagiadzo means to feel reverence for or to honor as holy. It means to treat as holy. The terrible tragedy in this explanation is that the modern evangelical mind has nearly lost all of its sense for the “holy.” In order to appreciate this, you have to travel back into first-century Palestine, into the Jewish mind, and attempt to understand what they understood by this incredibly rich word, holy. Space will not allow a treatment here. The main thrust of my point is that Peter is commanding his audience not to regard the reactions that men have to the gospel. Instead, we are to regard Christ as holy in the deepest parts of our being.
While we are doing this, we are to be in a constant state of readiness. We must always be prepared to “make a defense” to anyone. To make a defense of what? The hope that is in us! First of all, what does Peter have in mind when he uses the word apologia in this context? Ellliot is helpful, “Occasionally, in the NT the noun, apologia is used in reference to a personal “defense” before judicial officials. Elsewhere, however, it denotes a reply to accusations of a general rather than a legal nature. The term apologia is used here in this latter sense, as the context demonstrates.” The Greek expression etoimos aie…panti toi aitounti indicates there is no specific trial that Peter has in mind but rather, a general state of preparedness to deal with a challenge from any quarter. Clifford McManis is correct when he points out, “First, they misrepresent the actual meaning of the way Peter used the word apologia, and second, they try to milk too much out of one word by attempting to construct an entire field of discipline out of one isolated term. This mishandling of the biblical text by most modern apologists is not at all surprising given their intense attraction to philosophy and their corresponding lack of enthusiasm for theology and exegesis.
We are to provide a defense “to everyone who asks” us for an “account of the hope that is us.” They are asking for some justification as to why they witness such bizarre hope, strange hope, in Peter’s audience, in the Christian community. Explain or justify this hope that you have! Indeed, Peter’s audience was well aware that such an explanation could come with great peril. Hence, Peter provides encouragement, instruction, and even a mandate. Notice that this behavior is commanded of all Christians. The NT nowhere indicates that there is a special field of apologetics or a special office of apologist. Every Christian, every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ is called to provide this same defense to anyone asking from any quarter. The idea that this is a special calling and special area of discipline is simply not supported by Scripture in any way whatsoever.
Since apologetics is dealing with the hope that is in us, it is only reasonable that we conclude that apologetics must be about the gospel because, after all, the gospel is the basis for the hope that is in us. In other words, if we want to defend this mysterious hope that is in us, the best way, no, the only way to do it is to issue the gospel to the inquirer. The Greek word elpis means to look forward with great confidence. What was it that Peter’s audience was looking forward to? We need to look back at Peter’s prologue in order to connect those dots: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” We have been born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead! It is this living hope that NT Christians were being commanded to provide justification for to anyone that asked them to do so. And what is our justification for the living hope? We have to look no further than the Christ event itself, and specifically, the resurrection of Christ. And if Christ is raised from the dead, we too know that we will someday be raised with Him to a newness of life! But you may be thinking that this stuff is all in the bible and is fine for people that believe the bible and the resurrection, but what about those that do not believe the bible? I think I am safe is saying that those in 1 Peter 3 who were attempting to intimidate the Christians did not, in fact, believe the bible.
So then, if apologetics is really about the gospel, it follows that we must ensure that the philosophy that informs our apologetic, rests firmly on theological foundations. The gospel is about redemption. It is about the Creator God, creating man, the creature. This creature fell into sin, and under the curse of God. God, being infinitely gracious, decreed to rescue His creature from the grip of sin, from the curse under which man has fallen. He accomplished this through the work of Jesus Christ, in His death, burial, and resurrection. Remember, what we are tasked with is to provide justification for the hope that is in us to anyone who asks. That is the mandate. And since apologetics is gospel-centric, informed by a philosophy that rests upon biblical theology, it will necessarily involve gospel proclamation. This means the starting point for Christian apologetics takes us back to the beginning. First, we recall that “in the beginning, God created.” In this we see the Creator/creature distinction. God is uncreated and we are created. God is unlike us in that He is underived and we are derived. God is infinite and uncreated and we finite and created, limited. Second, we recall that God created man in His image and in His likeness, the Hebrew says, bĕṣalmô bĕṣelem. From this we understand two things: we are unlike God, and we are like God. The defense of Christian hope, and that is what we are talking about, must begin here if it is to avoid inconsistencies, fallacies, and unnecessary irresolvable problems, and contradictions. If you have embraced an apologetic method that fails to account for the Creator/creature distinction, you are beginning in a position that is itself not Christian in nature. It is a position that is borrowed from pagan philosophy. It is the product of poor exegesis, if any, and almost a complete neglect of theological study. It is the product of autonomous human reason. It is the product of a fallen, sinful, rebellious rationalism that cleverly disguises itself as wisdom.
The state of modern apologetics is as deplorable as the state of modern evangelicalism to say the least, and yes, there is a direct relationship. At minimum, there is a conceptual incoherence, or at least a confused idea of Christian belief in many quarters of classical apologetics, especially among the younger generation.
First, there is inconsistency in method. One apologist complained that an atheist accused him of inconsistency of method because on the one hand, he did not believe in a literal talking snake in the garden of Eden, or that Balaam’s donkey literally spoke to him, while on the other hand, he wanted to take the virgin birth literally. That atheist was essentially categorizing the apologist’s tactic as a rescuing device. The apologist has classified the snake and the donkey as poetry and wanted to retain the virgin birth as historical narrative. The atheist was correct. Given that both the donkey and the snake appear in historical narrative, to classify the language as poetry is obviously suspicious. Is the apologist too concerned with the insults he might have to face for choosing to take those texts at face value? Has he succumbed to their intimidation?
Second, classical apologetics is anchored in reasoning that is very often not faithful to Scripture. Modern apologetics mishandles Romans 1. Where Romans 1 clearly teaches us that all men know God and are without an excuse for their choosing not to believe, and for choosing to pervert, and corrupt the truth and knowledge that God has given them. Modern apologists pretend this isn’t the case at all, and they reason with the unbeliever in a way that ignores this clear truth of Scripture. The modern apologist wants to make much of the clause “dioti to gnōston tou theou phaneron estin en autois.” Because, that which is known about God is evident within them. The classical apologist wants to take this to mean, among them, not in them. This interpretation, in their way of thinking, allows them to say that they should know God based on all the evidence, but they don’t. Therefore, in their arguments, they claim that we must do more. But Romans 1, in context, does not support such a conclusion. The next sentence says that God has made it plain to them. Rather than Christians having to demonstrate that God is knowable, and known, God has done that work already. In fact, God’s revelation of Himself in nature to all men, by way of the human conscience, and by way of all the facts of creation, is so clear and efficacious that not a single human being has any justification for choosing to believe otherwise than that God exists as our Creator and sovereign Lord. Ignoring this truth, classical apologists prefer to pretend the state of affairs is otherwise than Romans 1 describes and they go off to construct elaborate philosophical arguments designed to “clear the obstacles” to faith or “soften the heart” as I have been told so many times. This approach is not faithful with Christian belief as I have shown in this paragraph.
Second, the use of Bayesian theorem of probability is inappropriate for the events of divine revelation and especially the resurrection event. Another very popular approach is to use Bayes’ theorem of probability to argue for the likelihood of the resurrection. The claim is made that given all the possible explanations, it is probably true that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Philosophers refer to this tool as abduction. It claims to reason to the best possible explanation. It fails for many reasons that are too numerous to get into. The basic problem is that it is highly controversial to use probability with an event that only happened once. The second problem is that Scripture is not open to the possibility that Jesus didn’t raise from the dead. Once again, I would say to even consider it possible that Christ did not raise from the dead is a confused way to think about the thunderous announcements about the event extended by God Himself in the text.
Third, the classical apologetic operates on the assumption of the efficacy of autonomous human reason. Human reason is the final authority, rather than God speaking in Scripture. Simply put, there is something terribly wrong with the scenario where man is the judge and God and Sacred Scripture are the defendants. Christian beliefs about God, and God speaking are subjected to the sinful criteria of pagan unbelievers and unless they can pass the test, well then, belief in God, and in God speaking, and in God being known and knowable are classified as incoherent and irrational. The classical apologist takes the most implausible approach of pretending that man is in the rational driver’s seat and that it is his job is to satisfy the pagan criteria regarding what is reasonable belief and what is not reasonable belief.
At its core, classical apologetics (any non-reformed approach to apologetics) embraces a non-Christian metaphysic as well as epistemology by failing to recognize the difference between human and divine knowledge (rationalism and empiricism) and rejecting the noetic effects of sin (rationalistic gospel). Man is created in the image of God. He is a creature. His knowledge of the world is derived. God’s knowledge is underived. Man’s knowledge is dependent on divine revelation. God’s knowledge is determinative. Additionally, man has fallen into sin and suffers from those effects of sin in every part of his being. Classical apologetics ignores the metaphysical reality of man’s dependence on God prior to the fall and his hopeless condition after the fall. Philosophically speaking, the classical apologist has embraced a philosophy that rests on ancient Greek philosophy rather than a philosophy that rests on biblical foundations. Additionally, classical apologetics fails to recognize that Christians must adopt a distinctly Christian epistemology. Rather than adopt pagan views about human reason and empiricism, Christians affirm that human knowledge is revelational in nature. Apart from God, human predication is impossible. All knowledge is revealed knowledge. This was true prior to the fall and it is true today. On the one hand, classical apologetics gives man too much credit for what he knows, and on the other hand, it gives him too little credit for what he knows, but only where it is convenient to do so and where the system's own self-interest is concerned.
I am convinced that there is a serious crisis in the field of apologetics. If you are reading this article correctly, I am calling into question the legitimacy of apologetics as a separate discipline. I reject the idea of an "office" of apologist and consider it unbiblical. I am contending that everyone is to engage in the defense of the Christian hope that is within us. I am also observing that most of those engaged in Christian apologetics are confused about Christian belief, holding to views that are incoherent and out of step with the basic teachings of Scripture concerning God, man, sin, and human knowledge. Many young apologists are the products of modern evangelicalism. As such, many of these young men aren’t even regenerated. They have made external commitments to Christ based on arguments and historical evidence but not as a result of the inward miraculous work of the Holy Spirit. If it is possible to convert to Islam based on spurious arguments and beliefs, surely it is possible to do the same with a false Christianity. And that is the state of affairs as it has come to be in the modern world of Christian apologetics. It remains to be seen what you and I will do about it.