Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. 1 Peter 3:15
Today’s church bears the burden of proof in establishing that it is, in fact, a place of rational thought. If this sounds silly, consider our cultural climate. We hear about science versus religion, as if one necessarily precludes the other. We hear about faith versus reason, as if the God of the universe cannot reveal himself to both heart and mind. Christianity (as well as religious particularism more generally) is regarded as narrow and unthinking. Now more than ever, Christians are charged with demonstrating that they are men and women who think deliberately about what they believe, and that their standpoint can be taken seriously. The (prayerful) use of apologetics can inspire a change in culture, especially in the popular perception of Christians as thoughtlessly dogmatic.
In nearly any discussion of apologetics, the view that apologetics “plays no meaningful part in faith” is bound to surface. After all, God does not depend on our human attempts at reason, and neither should the Christian’s faith in Him. According to such foundational theologians as Henry Dodwell, Karl Barth, and Rudolf Bultmann, faith has no basis in reason, but rather solely in the authority of Scripture. One of Locust Walk’s other contributors, Isaac Han, has (articulately!) echoed this view here. There is plenty of truth to this– of course we are called to walk by faith and not by sight. Of course our finite selves will never be able to fathom, much less explain, every intricacy of an infinite God. But in the following paragraphs I will maintain that apologetics does play a valuable role in the Christian walk, and that we are called to use it.
First, we will want to distinguish between the role of apologetics in knowing Christianity to be true versus its role in showing Christianity to be true.1
For knowing Christianity to be true, the revelation of the Holy Spirit is far, far more important than reasoned argument. In fact, it is all that is needed. The testimony of the Holy Spirit is not merely a premise for some argument for God; it is the actual unmistakable self-revelation of God to us, and requires no logical proof. When we encounter the Holy Spirit, we are immediately experiencing God Himself.2
The fact that there are people seeking God shows us that the Holy Spirit has been working in them. This is important to our discussion of reasoning and argument– since argument alone is not sufficient to change a heart toward Christ, it means that a lack of evidence is never the final reason that someone fails to become a Christian. Ultimately, it is a willful rejection of the Spirit’s leading. Indeed, it is a good thing that argument is not necessary to have faith in God: there is no guarantee of universal access to – or understanding of – arguments or proofs for God’s existence. On the other hand, we are promised access to the Holy Spirit.3 The non-Christian should not be expected to read a list of arguments and immediately dive headlong into the baptismal font.
So far, we have enumerated the ways in which apologetics is clearly secondary to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Argument must be a minister to– not a magistrate over– the truth presented in the gospel.4 That said, in its proper supporting role, reason is not without merit.
These disclaimers aside, we can explore what it means to show that Christianity is true. Imagine a situation in which a Christian and a non-Christian each claim to have had an experience of God. Though the Christian knows her claim to be true because of the Holy Spirit (as we described earlier), there is no non-circular way for her to express this experience to the other. Each party can neither express her own experience, nor access the other’s experience to see how they differ. Either one may say “You just can’t understand my experience–there’s no way you ever can.” And this may well be true, but it is not necessarily productive for discovering objective truth. Here is where apologetics can come in. Starting with considerations and premises on which they can both agree (sense perception, one’s own existence, etc.) they can effectively talk about what is true.
We should not think that assessing what we know to be true undermines faith; rather, it can be helpful in clearing away false perceptions that we use to avoid putting our faith in God. For example, if I reject Christianity because I think the concept of an eternal God is logically incoherent, then demonstrating the logical possibility of such a God is worthwhile, and leaves me unable to hide behind this reservation. I will have to either find another reason to disbelieve, or attend more closely to the Spirit’s call.
This is not just an academic exercise, nor are we stepping on God’s toes by defending our faith with reason. Paul commands us to “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you,”5 in order to "demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.”6 He even makes it a requirement for church leaders to “give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”7
Paul’s approach to evangelism most closely resembles apologetics as we know it today.8 But even more importantly, Jesus himself asked people to believe in him on the authority of the evidence he presented: miracles and prophesy. In John 10:37-38, he asks the Jews to consider his works as evidence of his deity. “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Here we see Jesus’ display of evidence to convey truth. If what we claim about God is, in fact, true, it would make sense that what we observe in the world reflects this—for example an objective moral code, a finely-tuned physical universe, etc. — and noticing this congruence is no negative reflection on our faith.
Notice we are not trying to intellectually bludgeon the non-Christian into taking our side. After all, our aim is to discover truth, which, when found, will benefit everyone. We are simply trying to show that Christians are not contrarians when it comes to reason. With this in mind, apologetics serves as a rational basis for starting the conversation. The conversation itself, however, is by no means argument alone. Perhaps the most compelling case for Christ you can offer is your own life– your unconditional love for undeserving people, at your own expense, by the grace of God. Much could be said on this point, but briefly: if I am to defend the hope that is within me, I should first stop and see that there really is hope within me, and that it is reflected in the life I lead. 1 Corinthians expresses this better than I can: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”9 The body of Christ is not only a mouth, but hands and feet as well.
So to the non-Christians in the room (if you have been so kind as to follow me this far), you are absolutely permitted to challenge the Christian about his beliefs. I, at least, should welcome questions and discourse far more often and openly than I do. It is completely appropriate for you to raise objections to my claims, and it is fitting for me to answer in reason and faith. More importantly, please keep me accountable for the implicit case I make– I invite you to challenge me when I fail to show the sacrificial love that Christ has shown me.
1. This distinction originated in Dr. William Lane Craig’s book Reasonable Faith.
2. For the Christian, the Spirit of God gives us assurance of the truth of the gospel, and of our communion with Christ. The apostle John writes of this: “ By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit.” (1 John 4:13 RSV). Christians will be quick to point out that “no one is saved by argument alone”-- and this is certainly true. In the non-Christian, too, the Holy Spirit’s work is wholly sufficient without human reason. In the non-Christian’s case, the Spirit works to convict of God’s righteousness, and of one’s separation from Him (John 16:7-11 RSV). Paul writes that left to his own devices, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God.” (Romans 3:10-11 ESV) And according to Jesus, no one would ever come to know Christ without the Spirit’s aid, drawing people toward Himself. (John 6:44 ESV)
3. Luke 11:9-13
4. Coined by Martin Luther
5. 1 Peter 3:15, ESV.
6. 2 Corinthians 10:5, ESV.
7. Titus 1:9, ESV.
8. Philippians 1:7, ESV.
9. 1 Corinthians 13:2
Sharon Rose Christner is a sophomore in the College studying Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and Various Other Things. She enjoys Goodwill, Gershwin, and dropping notes to strangers from balconies.