Apologetics may happen at many different levels, from the highly formal and intellectual (e.g. debates with leading atheist thinkers, presentations in universities and parliaments) to the highly informal and less strictly intellectual. Much of what follows in this section presumes the more informal interactions that every believer should expect to engage in through the normal process of life as described in 1 Peter 3. Apologist Michael Ramsden has warned that:12
The temptation with apologetics is to offer set answers to set questions. It can be useful to have a structure in mind when dealing with certain issues. However, it is better to have an understanding of how we can effectively engage with people at a conversational level… Apologetics can become mechanistic. Although the truth of the Gospel remains constant, we mustn’t think that by repeating things we have said to other people in the past, we will automatically get the same response.
The aim of this section is to reflect on the dynamics of a conversation with a non–believer. Based on 1 Peter 3:13–16 and on personal experience we can consider the constituent parts of this interaction:
The context in which an apologetic interchange takes place is vital to the dynamic of the conversation. This works at a number of levels:
a) The relationship between the two persons – how well you know the other person and the nature of your relationship will affect the way you interact and how direct and deep you feel you can be. The dynamic will be very different if you are speaking with a close relative, a lifelong friend, a neighbour, a casual acquaintance, a work colleague or a person with whom you have just sparked off a conversation.
b) The immediate situation – depending on the place, time and social setting you are in you may have greater or lesser freedom to talk at length and at a more personal level. Consider the difference between a crowded room or two people alone in a living room or the difference between a party and a funeral.
c) The wider context – every interaction happens within a wider social, cultural and historical context. Conversations may be freer in an open liberal democracy compared to a closed society. Recent events in the news may be the catalyst for a conversation and will likely inform and shape the way it unfolds. Different cultures will appreciate and permit different degrees of informality and directness. Where the social and cultural gap is greater between the two parties greater sensitivity will often be required.
A hope filled person who fears no one but Christ and is living out their “good behaviour” for all to see with a clear conscience. Your personal story is the greatest defence of all – told with humility and sincerity it is hard to argue with! You may feel that you are not the best person to be dealing with this question or this person, but you are the person who is here right now and you must trust that the situation is no coincidence and that God will use you to bear witness to Christ in this moment. You should approach the conversation with confidence in God but humility as regards your own ability and your understanding of the other person. Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli give a necessary warning about the importance of the person of the ‘apologist’ in a dialogue when they say that: “an argument in apologetics, when actually used in dialogue, is an extension of the arguer. The arguer’s tone, sincerity, care, concern, listening and respect matter as much as his or her logic – probably more.” 13
You need to consider who the person you are speaking with is. What cultural and religious background do they come from? What experiences have they had that might lie behind their question or colour their perspective on Christianity? Where do they stand as regards the Christian faith (hostile, indifferent, interested, challenged, formerly believed, believer, doubting)? It is also worth considering at this stage what point in the gospel story they stick at. It will usually be one of the following points:
Kenneth Boa and Robert Bowman suggest that different approaches to apologetics will be most valuable for people at different stages on this journey towards faith. They write:14
elements of the fideist approach are most valuable at the extreme ends of the process of a person moving intellectually from unbelief to faith. This is because fideism is strongest in dealing with the personal or volitional dimension of apologetic questions. The Reformed approach is strongest in exposing the irrationality of unbelief (vital early in the process) and affirming the exclusivity of the Christian truth claims (vital near the end of the process). The classical and evidential approaches are strongest in defending specific truth claims that tend to be questioned in the middle of the process.
The following table indicates how this is likely to work in practice:
NOTE – Letters in brackets indicate the different apologetic approaches: (F)ideism, (R)eformed, (C)lassical, (E)vidential
Make sure you have actually listened carefully to what they say rather than assuming that they have said what you expected or wanted to hear. We would do well to heed the wisdom of Proverbs 18:13: “he who answers before listening – that is his folly and his shame.” To be effective in the task of apologetics we must learn to be good listeners. You might also consider what lies behind this question – why have they asked it? Is the question:
Wisdom and discernment will be needed to decide what lies behind a question and therefore how you should answer. Consider, for example, the question of how a good God could allow suffering. The way you respond will be (or should be) very different depending on whether the person has just been bereaved or received a bad diagnosis recently or if they are studying a course in philosophy but have had no recent personal suffering.
Peter calls it a defence or a reason and he calls us to be prepared. Christians ought to be thinking people. We must also be ready to respond, or to come back to the person with an answer if we don’t know how to. There are some excellent resources available to help us (see the recommended reading). Of course it may be that we don’t initially respond to the question with an ‘answer’. We may learn from Jesus’ example that often the best way to respond initially is with another question. Asking questions can be a vital way to:
The aim is to engage in a conversation rather than an “argument” (here using the word in the popular sense of a heated exchange rather than to describe a logical case for a point) and the key difference between the two is that in a conversation two people listen to one another whereas in an argument they speak at (or over) one another. Conversations move towards greater understanding, whereas arguments move towards greater alienation.
The one who is Lord! We should always aim to bring the conversation back to him. Our aim should be to try to connect the discussion into the gospel story. Remember also that the greatest apologetic evidence for the gospel is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In addition, remembering that Christ is present in the apologetic encounter should keep us prayerful and mindful of the underlying spiritual battle we engage in.
The intention of this article has been to introduce the Christian reader to apologetics and in some way to demystify a topic that many Christians find intimidating. I have deliberately not included detailed arguments for the existence of God or about specific objections to the Christian faith, since my intention has been to build a case for why every Christian should have an interest in apologetics and how every Christian can begin to engage in apologetic dialogue. For greater detail on the issues covered in this article and many examples of specific arguments the reader is referred to the Recommended resources that follow.
In conclusion I simply want to encourage you, the reader, to have boldness in sharing your faith and engaging with the questions people ask. This boldness is not drawn from arrogance but from a confidence in Christ as Lord and a joy in the living hope He has won for us. For those who have a particular love of intellectual arguments I encourage you to continue loving God with “all your mind” but to be sure that you reflect on the personal stories that lie behind the questions people ask and that you seek to live in and share God’s grace in your attitude and words. Above all, let us continue to serve God with a clear conscience so that our provocative lifestyles will provoke and interest and provide a case that cannot be easily assailed. May our lives, actions and words be shaped by the love and truth we have discovered in Christ Jesus. My aim is to encourage and challenge you as Paul did the Colossians:
My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no–one may deceive you by fine–sounding arguments… So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. See to it that no–one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.
Colossians 2:2–4, 6–8