The term ‘apologetics’ derives from the Greek word apologia. Although it is derived from the same word as the English noun ‘apology’ and adjective ‘apologetic’ the meaning is quite significantly different. In the ancient Greek world an apologia was a legal defence of oneself, similar to the speech a modern–day defence lawyer makes on behalf of their client. It did not mean “a regretful acknowledgement of an offence or failure” (the Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘apology’) but a carefully reasoned defence of one’s beliefs or actions.
We might, then, define Christian apologetics as follows:
The task of developing and sharing arguments for the truth and rationality of Christianity and the falsehood and irrationality of alternatives with the aim of strengthening the faith of believers and provoking non–believers to consider Christ
The significance of this definition will become clearer throughout this article, but at this point it is important to emphasise that ‘argument’ in this context refers to a logical, reasoned case rather than an argumentative style. Apologetics includes both developing and sharing arguments – it is not a purely academic exercise conducted in an ivory tower, but a practical engagement with real people and real problems. You will also notice that there are two sides to the arguments we seek to develop – a positive case for Christianity and a negative case against alternative belief systems. Furthermore, the ultimate aims of apologetics are not to develop clever arguments but to see people led to faith and strengthened in their faith.
In the second century AD, as Christianity began to engage at an intellectual level with Greek philosophy and attracted greater attention from Roman society, a number of writers produced reasoned defences of the Christian faith. Of these Justin Martyr (c. 100–165 AD), a gentile from Samaria who was converted after seeking truth in numerous philosophies and eventually died as a martyr in Rome, is probably the best known and the most significant. These writers are generally referred to as ‘the apologists’. Their writings collectively show three major concerns:
Other eminent Christians of this period were disparaging of the approach of the apologists. For example, Tertullian criticised Justin’s use of Greek philosophy, saying famously, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” This difference of opinion continues to divide evangelical Christians today. Some have a positive approach towards apologetics, believing that all truth is God’s truth and that it is important to defend Christianity in the realm of philosophical debate, whereas others are suspicious of apologetics and argue that we should put our energies into proclaiming the gospel instead.
Interestingly, all three of the main lines of argument advanced by the apologists of the second century find precedents in the New Testament book of Acts, making Luke (or perhaps Paul, whose words he recorded) the first recorded Christian apologist. Renowned biblical scholar F.F. Bruce wrote:1
Of three main types of Christian apologetic in the second century Luke provides first–century prototypes: apologetic in relation to pagan religion (Christianity is true; paganism is false); apologetic in relation to Judaism (Christianity represents the fulfillment of true Judaism); apologetic in relation to the political authorities (Christianity is innocent of any offence against Roman law).
So, then, apologetics originated in the New Testament (see the later section on A biblical case for the task of apologetics), developing further in the second century in response to challenges encountered as it crossed cultural boundaries into the Graeco–Roman world. Throughout the history of Christianity apologetics has continued to adapt to new cultural challenges. For a short overview of the history of Christian apologetics, including profiles of the leading figures in the development of modern apologetics, the reader is referred to the online article A Brief History of Apologetics by Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman.2
Apologetics is generally said to have three functions, although it should be realised that not all Christian apologists accept that all three functions are valid (some would say that we should not try to construct positive arguments for Christian faith but simply focus on refuting accusations against it) and there is considerable variation between different schools of apologetics as to what arguments should be used within each function:
Aim – to show that Christianity is reasonable / rational. Using philosophical arguments and evidence from science, archaeology and history to show that the Christian faith has greater power than any alternative belief system to explain and interpret the world we live in.
Aim – to show that Christianity is not unreasonable / irrational. Removing objections that are made against Christianity, for example claims of contradictions in the Bible, alternative interpretations of historical and scientific evidence and misconceptions about Christian belief.
Aim – to show that non–Christian belief systems are unreasonable / irrational. Focuses not on specific attacks against Christianity but on undermining the foundations of other belief systems.
Some writers add a fourth function, namely persuasion. They claim that apologetics also aims to persuade people to believe in the Christian message. It is probably better to see the task of persuasion as the overarching aim of apologetics, with the three functions above playing different parts within it. This is a helpful reminder of the fact that apologetics alone is not enough – evangelism is also necessary.
Another way to think about the purpose of apologetics is to think about how it relates to those who are believers and those who are non–believers. Apologetics aims both to strengthen the faith of the faithful and to remove obstacles to faith for those who do not believe.
“Evangelism” is generally understood to mean sharing the good news message (gospel) about Jesus Christ. Apologetics is best seen as either pre–evangelism or as part of the process of evangelism. It removes barriers to belief and prepares the ground for the seed of the gospel to be sown. It is vital not to divorce apologetics strictly from evangelism. It is unlikely that people who have intellectual objections to the existence of God or the historicity of Jesus will receive the gospel message, and apologetics will help to remove these obstacles by appealing to intellectual reasoning. At the same time, a person could be intellectually convinced of the credibility and even the truth of the Christian faith but still not be a Christian. The gospel appeals not only to the mind, it also appeals to the emotions and, most importantly of all, to the will. Conversion occurs when mind, heart and will are surrendered to God in repentance and faith. As such it will often be wise to share the gospel as we engage in apologetic arguments.