Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Danger of Apologetics

"Whoa. Danger? I thought this was an apologetics blog."

You're right. It is. And as such, it's my job to make sure that whoever reads it gets an accurate picture of what apologetics really is. And a very important part of that job--one that thus far I have neglected--is to make clear the inherent danger in doing apologetics.

First, a story.

I was once doing some evangelism with a friend on my college campus. We engaged a guy in conversation about God, and things quickly became heated. He was an international student, not at all Christian, and had a more or less pluralist view of religion. He had thought about it just enough that the conversation was a little out of my friend's reach, which left the ball squarely in my court. So I engaged him. When he argued fallaciously, I called him on it. When he back-pedaled, I pressed him. In short, I destroyed him. It wasn't pretty. And for what? I seriously doubt that our conversation had any lasting impact on him whatsoever. If he ever came to faith, it was because someone after me loved him better than I did.

You can probably see where this is going. There are at least two ways apologetics can be harmful.

First, there is an inherent danger in studying a little bit of anything. This is compounded when the thing being studied has direct relevance to what one values most. For most of the folks reading this, what you value most is probably the Christian message of salvation. The gospel. So when one studies to learn how to "defend" that gospel, it's natural that a certain stance develops: a stance of, well, defense. It is the stance of either/or, of us and them, of truth vs. falsehood (or even lies). The defense imagery (which I have myself used many times) suggests rather powerfully a clear distinction between the truth-bearer and the truth-denier. And again, when the truth in question is the gospel itself, the stakes couldn't be higher. Worse still, the defense stance is one of violence, or at least aggression. And this is directly opposed to the spirit of Jesus, and thus to the gospel. But how can a defense be opposed to what it is defending? That, as the philosophers like to say, is repugnant to the intellect.

Clearly the word "defense" should be used with some caution. It is used, after all, for good reason. It is derived primarily from 1 Peter 3:15, the go-to verse for Christian apologists: " your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect." The word for defense there is ἀπολογίαν, which is of course where we get the word "apologetic." But the defense stance assumed here is within the context of dialectic, or reasoned argument, not between persons as persons. The proper stance for the latter is the same as ever: self-sacrificial love, no matter the cost, no matter how vile and offensive the enemy or their beliefs.

So much for the first danger. The second is perhaps worse by virtue of being more subtle.

Put simply, knowing how to argue well and defend your beliefs can turn you into a smarty pants. A know-it-all who takes pride in being the person that people bring their questions to and is secretly bothered when they don't. A person who is confident they can win any argument, even arguments about motives for arguing. A person who loves to argue with those less qualified, and either avoids more informed opponents or, worse, fails to recognize when an opponent is superior.

I know this danger well because it described me for a long time, and if I am honest, in some ways it still does. And the worst part about it is that it's just false: you're not a smarty pants. You actually know very little. Almost nothing. There are more volumes than you can count, written by people you've never heard of, in languages you can't read, on questions you've never thought to ask. And all of that might not even be sufficient to satisfactorily answer the questions of the average person on the street. This fact should always be in the back of your mind when dealing with people's questions and giving a reason for your hope. Reading C.S. Lewis or Francis Schaeffer or Lee Strobel (or whoever) does not qualify you to play the role of answer-giver. If anything, it ought to make you a little more apt to listen.

I've studied philosophy, theology, and apologetics for several years now. Enough to carry on a reasonably informed conversation about most of the major questions with just about anybody. Enough to make me confident enough to write this blog. But if there's anything that becomes clearer to me on a daily basis, it's that I don't have a clue. I mean it; not a freakin' clue. The list of things I'm sure about grows ever smaller. But the faith I have in that short list grows ever stronger, too. But this has much more to do with God than with any book I've read.

The task of the apologist resides less in giving good answers than in helping people to ask better questions. Spoiler warning: we all have only one answer, and none of us fully understand it. It's just this: Jesus. He is all any of us can offer, and if you have Him, the rest is insignificant by comparison.


  1. Good one, who was the evangelism partner? Me? Yeah, theology leads me on a never-ending line of questions as well. Vanity vanity all is vanity. :) And all those books in latin, german, greek, hebrew, etc are too overwhelming, yet they may offer great perspectives on our questions. We should keep this overwhelming sense in the back of our heads. They say in seminary, "every professor at the end of the day must humble him/herself and say 'I don't know' and leave room for the mystery of God.

  2. Kyle, I totally agree. Although apologetics seems to be useful information to know, it has the potential to be harmful. I guess it's kind of like fire. If it's used in a dangerous way, it's dangerous and if it's used in a useful way it's useful. Pardon the redundancy. Your blog made me think of the verse in 2nd Corinthians where it talks about carnal weapons and God's mighty weapons. Somehow, I don't think knowing how to argue with someone is considered one of God's mighty weapons. Not to say that knowledge can help, but putting faith in one's own knowledge more than faith in God's Holy Spirit is arrogant. There should be a happy medium. I've had an experience where I didn't have to do anything but just stand my ground.

    Once, I was unexpectedly confronted by an athiest professor at the College of the Bahamas. He raved on and on about humanistic philosophies and even mentioned Friedrich Nietzsche. I basically just stood there and listened to him until he ran out of words. He finally asked me what the purpose was of the outreach we were doing. I simply looked him in the eyes and said something like "To encourage people to decide to follow Jesus and for those who already are doing that, help them reach out to other people."

    He pasued for a few seconds and said, "....that sounds pretty sincere. I wish you luck." Shook my hand and jetted off.

    I guess praying while he was blabbing helped a lot.

  3. Thanks for the comment Liz. Your story made me chuckle. I tend to agree with you. My only reservation is the language used in the particular scripture you mention. There it specifically links the divine power of our 'weapons' (in opposition to worldly, physical, 'carnal' weapons) to the ability to destroy arguments and opinions opposed to the knowledge of God. One might think that the only thing capable of casting down such arguments are other, better, arguments. But of course, as usual, there is likely more than one way to interpret this. One such way might be to see love as the 'trump card,' if you will, so that nothing--not earthly weapons nor the best arguments of reason--can stand in the face of it. I'm guessing that's the sort of thing you're getting at. If so, I'm inclined to agree.

  4. Right. The latter is how I was interpreting it so you can be inclined to agree. :)

  5. I love this blog. It's soooo true!!! :)