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“Ready Always to Give an Answer”

by  Caleb Colley, Ph.D.

“[L]et us reason together” is not the only thesis of Christianity, but is critical because God gave us our rational capacity, and expects us to use it to His glory (Isaiah 1:18; cf. Warren, 1982). This is a brief introduction to a particular application of reason: Defending the hope involved in Christianity. Peter enjoins this: “[S]anctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15, KJV). The word “answer” in this text is translated from apologia, the Greek word meaning “verbal defense, speech in defense” (Thayer, 1962, p. 65). Therefore, “Apologetics is the discipline that deals with a rational defense of Christian faith” (Geisler, 1999, p. 37). Faith and reason cooperate rather than oppose one another in Christianity (a study of this integration is important and has been done elsewhere, but is beyond the purview of our topic [see Lipe, n.d.; Sztanyo, 1996]).

Biblical passages where apologia or derivatives appear help us understand the meaning of apologetics. For example, Festus explained to Agrippa that the reason Paul had not been delivered into the hands of the Jews was because “it was not the custom of the Romans to give up anyone before the accused met the accusers face to face and had opportunity to make his defense [apologiasCC] concerning the charge laid against him” (Acts 25:16, ESV). Godly sorrow prompted the Corinthians to repent and want to “clear” themselves (apologianCC; 2 Corinthians 7:11). The Philippians supported Paul in the “defense” (apologia) of the gospel (Philippians 1:7; cf. 1:17). Paul greatly appreciated prayerful, moral support, especially because at his “first answer” (first apologia), probably before the Roman emperor, no one stood with him (2 Timothy 4:16; cf. Barnes, 1949a, p. 252). While the word apologia does not appear in Acts 7, we might suggest that the deacon Stephen offered an apology—a defense—in the speech that led directly to his martyrdom. Apologetics was an integral part of Christian ministry in the early church, and it involved a rational, written or verbal, defense of the Christian belief system. Further information concerning how the Greek mind understood the rhetorical form of the apology is available in Socrates’ Apology and corresponding commentaries (Plato, 1997, pp. 17-36; Stone, 1989).

There is no biblical indication that Peter’s command that the Christian be prepared for apologetics should be confined to antiquity. A review of the cultural landscape of our time would indicate that the need to defend Christianity is great (see Meacham, 2009, 153[15]:34-38; Colley, 2007b; Lyons and Butt, 2007). An understanding of apologia and an appreciation for the divine command for us to defend the faith, leads us to ask at least two major questions: (1) What kind of answer are we to prepare, in order to meet challenges to our hope?, and (2) How should we prepare to give this answer?

 

WHAT KIND OF AN ANSWER SHOULD WE PREPARE?

There is more than one way in which people answer the question, “Why do you have hope in Christianity?” Those who claim to follow Christ are often divided concerning the apologetic approach that is most effective, or even biblical. By considering each of five general approaches in turn, we can better define the kind of answer Peter is, by inspiration, instructing us to prepare. We should bear in mind that these divisions will be somewhat artificial (i.e., an author who typically is categorized as being one “type” of apologist may not always seem to fit a rigid mold) and perhaps too simple. Also, it is not implied that apologists are Christians in the biblical sense simply because they write in defense of Christian theology—we may not agree on every point with any apologist. Still, it is instructive to understand each approach in order to clarify and strengthen our own approach.

1. Experiential Apologetics. A purely experiential apologist seeks to validate Christianity by first asking: “Have we experienced God?” The experientialist appeals “primarily, if not exclusively, to experience as evidence for Christian faith” (Geisler, 1999, p. 43). According to the experientialist, we know God exists because we experience His being mystically as present in the world around us (see “Meister Eckhart,” 2006). A person who justifies Christianity solely on the basis of the benefits of Christianity to life (e.g., rids one of harmful habits, makes one a better employee, makes family life more enjoyable, etc.) is practicing experiential apologetics. Rational proofs are invalid according to the experientialist. For Kierkegaard, for example, “To try to prove God’s existence by objective, i.e., rational means, is impossible because God is Subject and is known only by our subjectivity” (Ramm, 1962, p. 53; cf. Westphal, 2002; Davenport, et al., 2001, p. 27). Those who claim to have had a supernatural “conversion experience,” as John Calvin did, fall into this category generally (Kerr and Mulder, pp. 24ff.; NOTE: Calvin typically is not considered an experientialist).

The experiential approach is sometimes expressed in mystical terms, and may sound spiritually appealing. Also, life is a temporal and spatial experience (and the Christian life is the best of all [John 10:10]). However, experiential apologetics is absent from Scripture—Christian apologists reasoned about their faith rather than “basing their credibility on some mystical or transcendental experience” as many false religionists do (Miller, 2003). Furthermore, while we are assured of God’s working in our lives (Romans 8:28), the persuasive value of personal experience is dubious in an age of increasing skepticism and materialism. Even those who would separate faith from reason utilize reason in their arguments (see Colley, 2007a).

2. Presuppositional Apologetics. The presuppositionalist seeks to validate Christianity by first asking: “Does anything except Christianity allow us to make sense of the world?” One who takes the presuppositional approach believes that one must presuppose that Christianity is true, and then proceed to show that all other religious systems are false (Geisler, 1999, p. 44). Greg Bahnsen, a presuppositionalist, defines the approach: “Presuppositional apologetics as taught by Cornelius Van Til urges the Christian to argue with unbelievers in an ‘indirect’ fashion, doing an internal analysis of the unbeliever’s worldview (his fundamental assumptions about reality, knowledge, and ethics) and comparing it to the worldview revealed in the Bible” (2009, parenthetical item in orig.). Presuppositionalists, with philosophers such as David Hume, reject the proofs for the existence of God even though they believe that God exists. Gordon H. Clark expressed this view: “The cosmological argument for the existence of God, most fully developed by Thomas Aquinas, is a fallacy. It is not possible to begin with sensory experience and proceed by formal laws of logic to God’s existence as a conclusion” (quoted in Fernandes, 1997; cf. Van Til, 1976, p. 31).

While the presuppositionalist is right that worldview is important, the presuppositional approach is in conflict with Paul’s prescription of the cosmological argument in Romans 1:19-20: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” God does not expect us to presuppose that His revelation is true; He wants us to examine the evidence (see Lipe, n.d.). People will be lost, not because they failed to make a presupposition, but because they failed to reason from the revealed order to the One who revealed it.

A presuppositionalist once told me that the unbeliever has a “heart problem,” rather than intellectual difficulty, that keeps him from obeying Christ. This presuppositionalist explained that the unbeliever was unable to develop faith rationally because, having a “sinful nature,” he was unwilling to presuppose that Christianity is valid. I admitted that some are prejudiced against Christianity, but then asked whether it was at least possible that an unbeliever wants to obey Christ, but has an intellectual objection to the existence of God, such as the problem of evil. The presuppositionalist, in this case at least, admitted that such was possible, thus voiding his argument.

3. Evidential Apologetics. The strictly evidential apologist asks, “What evidence is there that Christianity is valid?” Apologists who fall into this broad category stress “the need for evidence in support of Christian truth claims. The evidence can be rational, historical, archaeological, and even experiential” (Geisler, 1999, p. 42). For example, Josh McDowell’s book Evidence that Demands a Verdict starts with evidence that the Bible is unique (1972, p. 17). Bernard Ramm’s Protestant Christian Evidences (1953) is another example of the evidentiary approach. The pure evidentialist may treat evidence for God’s existence, but does not hold it logically necessary to start by establishing the validity of theism (i.e., that God exists). “Christian evidences” are popular because they are persuasive and overwhelmingly numerous. Evidentiary arguments can be used in conjunction with the theistic arguments of classical apologetics (discussed below).

To illustrate the significance of evidence to the Christian, consider an example from the creation/evolution controversy. W.R. Bird’s monumental, two-volume work The Origin of Species Revisited (1989) presents seven lines of evidence concerning the fossil record, and the conclusion is decisive, as Ralph Gilmore has noted: “[L]ife forms abruptly appear in the fossil evidence, and there are systematic gaps between categories of plants and animals that cannot be explained by the fossil evidence or by genetics. Of course, there would be no systematic gaps to explain had there not first been abrupt appearance, given the viewpoint of a supernatural origin of the universe” (2001, p. 135). Bird produced a systematic, anti-Darwinist interpretation of the fossil record that is purely scientific and shows—without religious appeals—that paleontology disproves evolution. Christians can use Bird’s research to show that the honest evaluation of the paleontological data is replete with hopeless difficulties and unexpected anomalies apart from a Creator (see Gilmore, 2001, pp. 132-150). We could illustrate time and again the significance of dealing with the evidence in preparing our answer for those who inquire about our hope. Recall, however, that the strict evidentialist does not think it logically necessary for apologetics to begin with the existence of God.

4. Historical Apologetics. The strictly historical apologist asks “Does history validate Christianity?” He “stresses historical evidence as the basis for demonstrating the truth of Christianity. These apologists believe that the truth of Christianity, including the existence of God, can be proven from the historical evidence alone” (Geisler, 1999, p. 43). He deals with a particular kind of evidence: historical data. John Warwick Montgomery is considered a historical apologist, and his clarion call is that “Christian faith is founded on fact” (2001, p. xiv). He wrote: “When world-views collide, an appeal to common facts is the only preservative against philosophical solipsism and religious anarchy.... Non-Christian positions must be destroyed factually and the Christian religion established factually” (2001, p. 119). Also, Montgomery’s The Quest for Noah’s Ark (1974), a survey of biblical and extra-biblical historical data, is typical of the historical apologist’s project.

It is faith-building to observe that the archaeologist’s trowel continually uncovers artifacts that corroborate the Bible, and never any artifacts that contradict the biblical historians (see Butt, 2004a; Butt, 2004b). However, Christian faith is not proportional to the number of extant artifacts that corroborate Scripture. While it is imminently interesting that the Hittite empire was discovered, Christians defended the faith prior to that discovery (Sayce, 1890; cf. Winckler, 1908, pp. 677-696.). The strictly historical apologist’s conclusion is that the Bible must be inspired because it is historically accurate, and that Christianity must be true because it fits the historical facts. This is different from the appeal of the classical apologist.

5. Classical Apologetics. The classical apologist asks, “Does God exist? If so, what follows from that fact?” He objects to every other apologetic system on the basis that theism must be established first. This approach “stresses arguments for the existence of God...as well as the historical evidence supporting the truth of Christianity. Classical apologetics is characterized by two basic steps: theistic and evidentiary arguments” (Geisler, 1999, p. 41). It was in this spirit that I began a book on Christian leadership for teenagers by discussing the existence of God, and stated: “The rest of this book will not make much sense to you if you do not believe in God” (2006, p. 9). Evidence is crucial to the classical apologist, but he believes that the evidence for the existence of God should be considered first. Apologists of the classical mold include Augustine (1991), Anselm (2001, pp. 7ff.), Thomas Aquinas (Kreeft, 1990, pp. 60-70), and more recently C.S. Lewis (1940; 1952), Henry M. Morris (1989; 2000), William Lane Craig (1979), and Norman Geisler (Geisler and Bocchino, 2001).

Our apologetic must not be purely pragmatic (i.e., what we think will “work”), but biblical (i.e., every argument must be authorized by Christ [Colossians 3:17; cf. Warren, 1989]). We will utilize evidence that the Bible is inspired by God and that Jesus is God’s Son, but present this evidence in the light of theism. Lewis, for example, began Mere Christianity by discussing the moral argument for God’s existence (1952; pp. 3ff.). Likewise, Paul’s address to pagans on Mars’ Hill did not deal with evidences for the resurrection, but rather an argument for the existence of God and for creationism (Acts 17:23-28). On the other hand, Peter’s sermon on Pentecost dealt with the divinity of Christ, because those present were already theists (Acts 2:14-39). Because Peter’s audience was already convinced that God exists, Peter could begin his apologetic by providing evidence that God raised Jesus from the dead (cf. 4:10; 5:30); he did not need to establish God’s existence first. Indeed, the council members’ response to Gamaliel’s argument indicates their respect for God, even though they were reluctant to admit that God’s power was with Peter (5:34-42).

Peter’s command in 1 Peter 3:15 is general. Whoever honestly asks why we have hope in Jesus deserves an answer. Barnes wrote on this point: “Any one has a right respectfully to ask another on what grounds he regards his religion as true.... [W]e are under obligation to state those grounds in the best manner that we are able” (1949b, p. 172). Our answers will vary depending on who asks the questions, but this variation occurs within the apologetic system we have introduced.

 

HOW SHOULD WE PREPARE?

Once we have decided to implement the classical model of apologetics, how can we implement that method?

1. Study the Bible. Our hope for eternity is grounded in the pattern of the revealed Word (Hebrews 6:19; Romans 6:17). It is unreasonable for a person to acknowledge this, and then treat knowledge of the Bible as unimportant (James 1:21). Until we are well-versed in the Scriptures, cognitive dissonance in the area of apologetics will probably pain us to the point that we will be unwilling to defend our hope amidst critical scrutiny. Furthermore, Bible knowledge is required to answer allegations that biblical doctrine is inconsistent with itself (Lyons, 2003, pp. 5-19), and to point out those internal evidences that demonstrate the inspiration of the Bible (see Butt, 2007).

2. Use Resources. We would be wise to take advantage of the wealth of apologetics material. As classical apologists we utilize materials produced by evidentiary apologists, but we are careful to order the evidence to build a theistic foundation. A good starting point for the individual or group is our overview of apologetics, Surveying the Evidence (Jackson, Lyons, and Butt, 2008). Along with the Apologetics Press Web site, I frequently recommend the apologetics information on www.ChristianCourier.com, edited by Wayne Jackson, co-founder of Apologetics Press.

3. Engage Others. Having armed ourselves with a measure of information concerning apologetics, we must kindly engage unbelievers and non-Christians in discussions about Christianity, with the ultimate goal of bringing them to the Lord (Matthew 16:26; 28:19-20). Study in apologetics is not for the purpose of winning arguments or demonstrating intellectual supremacy (Peter prescribes meekness), but rather to fulfill a divine command and remove “roadblocks” between unbelievers and saving faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). All the expertise in the world will not matter unless we apply it to godly purposes.

 

CONCLUSION

Recently, I had a conversation with several Christian teenagers at a summer camp. As an exercise in apologetics, I asked them why they believed that Jesus was the Son of God. The teens said that they had faith. I asked why they had faith. The thoughtful young people replied that they believed because the Bible says that Jesus is the Son of God. I agreed, but then asked them why they believed that the Bible was accurate in its assessment of Jesus. One particularly bright youngster cited 2 Timothy 3:16, appealing to the verbal inspiration of the Bible. Continuing the exercise, I responded by noting that the Bible is not the only book that claims inspiration for itself, and asked why we should think that the Bible was inspired, and works such as the Quran and the Book of Mormon were not. There was no answer.

I was glad that a Christian was asking the questions in an effort to solidify faith, but saddened by the realization that a skeptic or atheist might have been asking the questions in an effort to dismantle faith. We immediately had a “crash course” in classical apologetics. My limited experience suggests that the sincere ignorance of those youngsters with whom I spoke is somewhat typical of many of us. The world has good questions concerning our hope. God has provided the answers for both young and old. May He bless our efforts to learn and articulate His answers.

 

REFERENCES

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