Christians who are sceptical about the value of apologetics raise a number of different objections, some based on verses from the Bible and others based on limitations of logic and apologetics. These objections are generally based on misunderstandings of the Bible text or of the purpose of apologetics. In the list of objections that follows I am indebted to Norman Geisler 5 although I have made some changes to his list and have significantly modified his responses:
Verses such as Hebrews 4:12 are quoted to support the claim that the Bible is powerful in itself since it is God’s living word. It is sometimes said that the Bible is like a lion – it does not need to be defended but unleashed. It is true that Scripture is powerful to change attitudes and challenge hearts, but if someone will not read or listen seriously to it then it cannot do this work. Apologetics can establish the fact that it is reasonable to take the Bible seriously, so opening people to be prepared to listen. Furthermore, if Scripture only needed to be unleashed to do its work then the task of teaching and preaching would also be unnecessary and evangelism would be reduced to merely passing on texts from the Bible. Scripture consistently describes people as the medium through which God’s truth is communicated to other people. The Bible, and the gospel which it declares, is powerful to change attitudes and lives, but it must be proclaimed, declared and explained for, “How … can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14).
1 Corinthians 1:21 says that the world did not know God through its wisdom. It is claimed that this means there is no point in trying to get people to accept rational arguments for God. The context of 1 Corinthians 1, however, is not the existence of God but the acceptance of the message of the cross. That message cannot be accepted by natural reason alone – it only makes sense because of the special revelation of Scripture and as the Spirit enlightens (1 Corinthians 2:14). Elsewhere, however, Paul writes of evidence in nature pointing to the existence of God and some of His attributes, leaving people without excuse (Romans 2:12–15).
1 Corinthians 2:14 says that “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things what come from the Spirit of God”. It is argued that there is no point, therefore, in trying to explain them to him. Notice, however, that Paul says this man does not accept (Greek dekomai, ‘welcome’) them, not that he cannot understand them. Non–believers reject the gospel not because it is illogical and they cannot understand what it means but because they refuse to accept its claims over them. Apologetics seeks to explain the message clearly and rationally so that when the Spirit moves the person’s heart they will be ready to accept the truth. In fact, a prayerful approach to apologetics recognises that the work of the Spirit is necessary for people to receive the truth. The apologist does not seek to obstruct or replace the Spirit but to be the Spirit’s agent in bringing people to Christ.
Hebrews 11:6 clearly states that faith is essential to please God, and some people suggest that this means that reason is displeasing to Him. This claim sets up a false division between faith and reason. Biblical faith is not blind belief in spite of the evidence, but trust in something that has been commended to the person as trustworthy. The gospel is a message from God that claims that He can be trusted, and apologetics provides evidence that supports that claim. Faith is a response on the part of the individual that accepts the claim (or, rather, accepts the one of whom it speaks) and places confidence in it (or, more correctly, in Him) rather than in self or any alternative.
This claim arises from Matthew 12:39, where Jesus says that a wicked generation asks for signs. However, in the next verse Jesus says that one sign, the sign of Jonah, meaning His resurrection, would be given. Jesus presented His miracles as evidence of His identity as the Messiah and Son of God (Matthew 11:4–5; Mark 2:10–11; John 14:11). On occasions He refused to do miracles for entertainment (Luke 23:8) or because of unbelief (Matthew 13:58), but people saw his miracles and realised that they showed He came from God (John 3:2), and the apostles pointed to His miracles (Acts 2:22) and especially His resurrection (Acts 2:32; Romans 1:4; 1 Corinthians 15:3ff.) as evidence of His identity. The proper lesson to learn from Jesus’ example is not that apologetics is wrong, but that we need discernment to know when to engage in an argument and when not to.
Proverbs 26:5 is the basis for this claim, but those who make it neglect to read the following verse, which says that we should answer a fool according to his folly. The point of these adjacent and seemingly contradictory proverbs is that we need wisdom to decide when we should give an answer to a “fool” (someone who rejects God’s existence, according to Psalm 14:1) and when we should not.
If this claim is meant to say that Scripture provides no examples of God providing evidence to support faith then it is simply wrong. Geisler points to the miracles of Moses (Exodus 4:1–9), Elijah (1 Kings 18) and Jesus (Acts 2:22) as well as the way in which Paul reasoned with people about God’s existence, even using their own philosophical and religious ideas as a starting point (Acts 17:22–31). The Bible, therefore, provides clear precedents for the task of apologetics even if it does not contain the kind of detailed arguments necessary in modern apologetics since it was written in a pre–modern world primarily to believers. Apologetics today continues patterns found in Scripture.
This statement is self defeating since it relies on internal logic as the basis for its claim. Logic is simply the way in which we state facts and make claims. In this sense it is impossible to say anything at all about God or anything else without employing logic. As Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli write:6
Most people scorn or ignore apologetics because it seems very intellectual, abstract and rational. They contend that life and love and morality and sanctity are much more important than reason. Those who reason this way are right; they just don’t notice that they are reasoning. We can’t avoid doing it, we can only avoid doing it well.
They explain the relationship between the language of logic and argument and the reality of the world we live in: 7
We write in terms, propositions and arguments because we think in concepts, judgments and reasoning; and we do this because the reality we think about includes essences, facts and causes. Terms express concepts which express essences. Propositions express judgments which express facts. And arguments express reasoning which expresses causes, real ‘becauses’ and ‘whys’.
Since Christians believe in a God who speaks using human language we must be committed to the belief that language can describe reality in a way that is comprehensible. Although we do not claim we can know every truth about the causes, ‘becauses’ and ‘whys’ of the universe, we do believe that God has created us in His image as rational people who can comprehend those causes, ‘becauses’ and ‘whys’ that God has revealed to us through the ordering of nature, through His actions in history and through His words recorded in Scripture.
This may be true, but logic can show what things are possible and impossible and even whether something is probable or improbable. Logic, therefore, can point towards the existence of God and the truth of Christianity, even if faith is required to finally embrace it. We can apply the same thinking to relationships – logic can help us decide whether we are loved, but it cannot prove love – love must be experienced. Apologetics helps to bring people to a point where they can enter into relationship with Christ. Part of the problem with this objection is that it depends on the definition of ‘prove’. Very few, if any, things in life can actually be proved conclusively through logic, yet we live as if many things are true. Our knowledge of the world depends on experience as well as reason. Both are valid ways of discovering truth about our world.
Whilst apologetics without the gospel is not enough, there is plenty of evidence that God has used apologetic evidence to bring people to Christ. C.S. Lewis wrote that, “nearly everyone I know who has embraced Christianity in adult life has been influenced by what seemed to him to be at least a probable argument for Theism”.8 Testimonies of people like Frank Morrison and Augustine support this claim. It is one thing to argue that arguments cannot make a person believe, but quite another to argue from this fact that arguments have no part in the process of moving a person towards faith. In the words of Gresham Machen: 9
But, because argument is insufficient, it does not follow that it is unnecessary. What the Holy Spirit does in the new birth is not to make a person a Christian regardless of the evidence, but on the contrary to clear away the mists from his eyes and enable him to attend to the evidence.
Again, in the words of Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, “Arguments may not bring you to faith, but they can certainly keep you away from faith. Therefore we must join the battle of arguments.” 10