A number of New Testament passages are key to helping us understand why we should engage in apologetics and how we should do it. We will consider each of these passages in the order in which they appear in the New Testament, outlining principles for apologetics that arises from them as we do so:
This passage speaks of Paul’s activity in Thessalonica amongst the Jews. He went to where they were in the synagogue and he “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead”. Paul started with what these Jewish people knew, the Old Testament, and sought to convince them from it of the fact that the Messiah had to die and rise so that he could then tell them that Jesus was the Christ. He was making a logical case for the gospel that he proclaimed, removing the barrier in their minds that said the Messiah could not have suffered as Jesus did. The result was that some were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas – their persuasion was a necessary precursor to their ‘joining‘, which implies conversion. The word translated “reasoned” is significant because it means dialogue. Paul’s arguments were not pre–prepared and pre–delivered, they arose in the context of interaction, questions and debate. This is a vital reminder that apologetics is an engagement with people. The same word is used throughout Acts to describe Paul’s approach in different contexts – in Athens both in the synagogue and the market–place (17:17), in Corinth in the synagogue with Jews and Greeks (18:4) and in Ephesus, first for three months in the synagogue and then daily over the course of two years in a rented lecture hall (19:8–10).
In this section of Acts we find Paul in a predominantly Gentile context. His approach to proclaiming the gospel is quite different from his approach among the Jews described earlier in the chapter (see above). With the Jews and Gentile God–fearers he started with the Old Testament Scriptures which were familiar to them and which they already accepted as true. In Athens, however, he was among Gentiles who were immersed in Greek thinking. His starting points in communicating his message were therefore:
a) Greek religion – he used a statue dedicated to the “unknown God” as a starting point to explain that they did not actually know the one true God who had created them. He had identified a fault–line in their religious thinking – an uncertainty about the true nature and number of the gods – and he used this foothold to begin to demolish their worldview.
b) Greek philosophy – Paul was sufficiently well–versed in the writings of Greek philosopher poets to be able to quote one of them (verse 28). He was able to use the truth within their own belief system, however limited it was, as a platform from which to proclaim the whole message of God of which that truth was part.
Using these starting points he then dangled before them a hook – that the one true God has appointed a man to be judge and that the proof of this was that this man had risen from the dead (verse 31). Whether Paul was cut short at this point by the opposition of some of his audience (verse 32) or whether he deliberately ended his speech at this point with a ‘cliff–hanger’ intended to provoke further discussion we cannot be sure. It is important to notice, however, that he presents the resurrection of Jesus as a key apologetic evidence for the truth of Christianity. Other New Testament passages show that this confidence in the resurrection as the proof of Jesus identity was central to the apostles’ proclamation of the gospel (see Acts 2:32; Romans 1:4; 1 Corinthians 15:3ff.)
This record of Paul’s activity in Athens is sometimes criticised as a failure. It is suggested that it was an attempt by Paul to foray into a different approach and that because it was unsuccessful he reverted to his typical approach based on the Scriptures in the next city he visited, Corinth (Acts 18). This claim is unfair, however, as some, albeit “a few”, of Paul’s listeners in Athens did become Christians including at least one member of the Areopagus (verse 34). In addition, as we shall see when we consider 2 Corinthians 10:3–5, Paul did use reason in his work in Corinth. The smaller response among the audience in Athens is likely to have been because it was a less receptive mission field, one that was steeped in Greek ideas and therefore whose people were not easily persuaded. The different approaches Paul took in different cities and contexts should actually be read as a skilful apologetic approach that understood the culture and found common ground from which to begin to persuade people of the truth of the gospel. It is an example of Paul becoming “all things to all men” as he told the Corinthians he normally did for the sake of the gospel (note he was contextualising the same unchanging gospel into different cultures) so that he could win some people for Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19–23). Apologetics must work from an understanding of the culture and worldview of the people being reached. It should then start from their current beliefs to build a case for the Christian faith. Acts 17 is a helpful biblical example of positive apologetics in a cross–cultural context. The three different responses of people in Paul’s audience (verses 32–34) also highlight three aims of apologetics:
– Some sneered – apologetics seeks to confront false ideas with truth
– Some said they wanted to hear more – apologetics seeks to interest people in the claims of the gospel
– Some believed – apologetics seeks to persuade people to believe in Christ
Once again we are reminded that apologetics cannot be separated from evangelism and that its goal is not simply to win intellectual debates, but to provoke people to consider the gospel and ultimately to trust in Christ.
In Acts 26 Paul is making a legal defence (an apologia, verse 2) against the accusations of the Jews before the Roman Governor Festus and King Agrippa, the son of the Herod Agrippa who had reigned during Jesus’ ministry and execution. After explaining the gospel to Festus Paul was able to say that his words were both true and reasonable – he appealed to Festus to listen to his message both because it was true but also because it made sense. There was no contradiction in Paul’s minds between the gospel and reason, proclaiming the message of Jesus and using sound arguments for it. Apologetics seeks to show that the Christian message is true and that it is reasonable, both in terms of internal logical coherence and its power to explain the world and our experience within it. During this same encounter Paul also turned to King Agrippa, who was present, and asked him if he believed the prophets. Agrippa felt that Paul was trying to “persuade” him to be a Christian. A key apologetic argument for Paul, as we have already seen in Acts 17:1–4, particularly amongst Jews was the fact that Christianity fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. This was also an important line of argument for the Second Century apologists and it remains so in modern apologetics.
These passages are important because they lay the foundation for the classical approach to apologetics. Paul speaks of two kinds of testimony that are available even to people who have not known the Scriptures or the gospel. These are what we might call general revelation since they are available to everyone, but contrast with special revelation (Scripture and the gospel) which only some have heard. The two witnesses are:
a) Creation (1:18–20) God’s invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature, are seen in what He has made. Paul is not claiming that people can know all that can be known about God from Creation, but that some things about Him can be known. Most importantly it is possible, and logical, to know from creation that God exists, and we can also say some things about what He is like – for example He must be intelligent, rational, powerful and capable of relationships. As a result, men are “without excuse” (verse 20) if they fail to acknowledge God’s existence. This phrase is significant as it translates the Greek word anapologētoi – literally they are “without an apology” or “without a defence”. Paul continues in the rest of chapter 1 to describe how mankind wilfully abandoned their knowledge about God, replacing Him with other gods, with the result that God abandoned them to their own desires which, left without a check, led them to every kind of sinful behaviour.
b) Conscience (2:15) The requirements of the law are written on their hearts. Once again Paul is not saying that every aspect of God’s law can be deduced from the human conscience or that it is a fool–proof guide as to what is right and wrong. The conscience has been damaged by sin and people can even numb their own conscience by repeatedly ignoring it, but still Paul argues that the conscience can act as a guide in morality. There is a universal law written on human hearts.
Based on these verses we should expect to be able to build bridges to the Christian faith from both people’s observations about the world (science) and their innate sense of morality (conscience). We can construct arguments for God’s existence from the recognition of design in nature and the experience of goodness and guilt in the human heart. It must be noted that Paul’s primary concern in Romans 1–2 is with explaining how nature and conscience leave human beings without excuse and justifies God’s righteous judgement of all people, but it is still valid to conclude from what he says that these means of ‘general revelation’ can speak to people about the truth of the gospel.
In these verses Paul describes his ministry in terms of warfare against spiritual strongholds that take the form of arguments and pretensions set against the knowledge of God. This provides a basis for offensive apologetics (the sense is of actively storming strongholds rather than taking a defensive stance), although it is likely that this will not be the task of every believer but a specific calling of some, like Paul, whom God has called for this purpose. It is essential to remember that apologetics is a spiritual enterprise, no less than evangelism, and so we should approach it prayerfully and with care.
Paul is in prison because he has engaged in defending the gospel (verse 17). This process includes both defending and confirming the message – clearly Paul engaged in both defensive and offensive apologetics. Notice, however, that it is the gospel that Paul defends and confirms. For him the task of apologetics always led to the gospel. We must never separate apologetics from evangelism, since it is the gospel that saves, not simply evidential and philosophical proofs of God’s existence and Christ’s historicity. We must seek to lead people to the message of the cross, the claims of Christ and the implications for their lives.
This passage provides a firm basis for defensive apologetics (dealing with questions people ask) as it envisages believers providing an answer to those who ask them why they have such hope. It teaches several key principles for apologetics. Firstly, apologetics is the task of all believers, not simply an intellectual elite – all should be prepared to give a defence. Secondly, arguments cannot be separated from the power of a provocative lifestyle – people should see our hope and ask us about it and our good behaviour should make the strongest case for the truth we declare. We should be eager to “do good” and this includes being eager to share our faith with others. Thirdly, our confidence comes from knowing that Christ is Lord (Peter’s quote from Isaiah 8:12 in verse 14 of his letter actually identifies Jesus as the LORD Almighty) – fear of Him is the antidote to fear of man. Fourthly, our attitude in engaging should be humility (not placing confidence in ourselves but in God) and fear of God (“respect” in verse 15 really means reverence for God, not respect for the people who ask us or for their beliefs, although proper respect is also important in our witness according to 1 Peter 2:17). Consider the following tagline from an apologetics website:
designed to help you engage your neighbors with hard–hitting evidence as to why society cannot survive without Christian truth, and why it is indeed true. It is vital that believers be equipped in the battle to defend Christian truth.
It is difficult to see how this language is consistent with humility here? Do we really need to be “hard–hitting” in our answers and do we really want to “battle to defend”? Of course, we realise that there is a spiritual battle ongoing (see 2 Corinthians 10:3–5) but we need to realise that the enemy is the spiritual forces that blind and ensnare people rather than the people themselves. We can use strong arguments without being “hard–hitting” towards the people we speak to. Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli write:11
Apologetic arguments are like military hardware… In this warfare we defend reason as well as faith, for reason is the friend of truth, and unfaith is untrue. In defending the faith we take back territory of the mind that is rightfully ours, or rather God’s… But the warfare is against unbelief, not unbelievers… The goal of apologetics is not victory but truth. Both sides win.
This passage helps us to overcome some common barriers Christians identify when thinking about evangelism and apologetics:
– Lack of interest:
a) On their part – “everyone who asks you” – our different lives should provoke an interest in them
b) On our part – “if you are eager to do good” – we ought to have a desire to bless others by sharing our hope
– Lack of distinctiveness:
a) Our actions – “good … conscience … conduct” – we must have clear consciences to have confidence in sharing
b) Our attitude – “Do not fear their fears … your hope” – do we react differently to the challenges of this world?
– Lack of confidence – fear of:
a) Rejection – “do not be afraid. Rather set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts” – who do we fear? Man or God?
b) Getting it wrong – “with humility” – we don’t have to have all the right answers; we point to Christ, not ourselves