What apologetics can and can’t do

I’m a big fan of apologetics. It’s kind of obvious. But over the years I’ve come to see its strengths and weaknesses. For the sake of brevity, I’ll just list a few of them and then comment at the end. When people exercise apologetics well . . .

What Apologetics Can Do

  1. Apologetics can refute heresy and fortify orthodoxy
  2. Apologetics can answer other bad ideas with good ideas.
  3. Apologetics can clarify cloudy theology (i.e., not quite heresy, but not clearly orthodox either).
  4. Apologetics can enrich your thought life, study habits, and communication skills 
  5. Apologetics can develop the academic tradition of denominations, churches, and families.
  6. Apologetics can refine the “mind of Christ” helping people to think more like Christ.
  7. Apologetics can advance scholarship in general
  8. Apologetics can expose bad practices, hypocrisy, and evil
  9. Apologetics can help protect loved ones from pernicious ideologies
  10. Apologetics can uncover the implications, inferences, and applications of different ideas
  11. Apologetics can lend richness to one’s education, discipleship, and spiritual growth.
  12. Apologetics can synergize ideas and beliefs–showing their relations to each other.
  13. Apologetics can distinguish different terms, ideas, and categories which might otherwise be ambiguous, confusing, and even heretical.
  14. Apologetics can challenge, entertain, and engage one’s Christian faith at a whole new level than before
  15. Apologetics can sharpen Christian practice, refining our behaviors they are more consistent with the truths of Christ.

Points #5&6 above merits some explanation. On #5, It’s been a recent fashion to shun denominations and be “non-denominational.” While I understand where those folks are coming from, and they aren’t entirely wrong, when it comes to the academic traditions over many generations, the non-denominationalists run the risk of restricting their doctrinal teaching to theological basics (i.e., the agreeable points across different systems), never really digging into controversial doctrines where denominations disagree, and never building very far when it comes to systematic theology and apologetic theology where controversial points are liable to arise. Meanwhile, churches, denominations, and families that can agree on some theological starting points can shift their apologetic energies into deeper discovery and defense within that denominational tradition (be it theological, philosophical, or scientific commitments).

On #6, besides denominational traditions, and overtly “Christian” systems of thought, there is also the vast and barely explored domain of Christian worldview. Apologetics overlaps heavily with “Christian worldview”, sometimes the two are indistinguishable. By “Christian worldview” I mean the wide range of ideas, implications, and applications that can be found and explored when people think from a Christian perspective. Christian worldview can refer simple to “how” we think Christianly, but it can also include “what” we think when we think Christianly. In popular Christian terms we might phrase this concept as a question, “How can I do [X] to the glory of God?” and “How might God’s redemptive plan account for [X]?” According to core Christian commitments, such as Colossians 3:17, literally everything can fit into those variables. When we ask these sorts of questions, we are thinking Christianly. From there, we can find, develop, and innovate endlessly. This, I think, is a big part of what it means to have “the mind of Christ.”

To be fair, here, I’m painting with a broad brush. Christian apologetics is really just “defending the faith” and most of the points I just listed are incidentals. They are accompanying features that may or may not occur when someone is doing apologetics. Nevertheless, it’s hard to take on the mantel of defending the faith from competing religions, ideologies, and worldviews without being deeply affected in the process.

And if we apologists are going to do this well, we NEED to be growing through the process. We are not to be theology computers or philosophy dictionaries, we are to be redemptive ministers. We are to be agents of reconciliation. That means we are learning more about other people, more about ourselves, and more about God even as we learn more about the Christian faith. We are to be growing in our love for others and for God even as we listen, speak, write, and work out the truths of God.

What Apologetics Can’t Do

Apologetics can lead to great things. But it’s not everything. If we apologists are to be honest we have to admit that no amount of apologetics can cover all the basics. Even if we are doing apologetics well we still find that

  1. Apologetics can’t silence heretics
    As mentioned above, apologetics can refute heresy but it doesn’t necessarily silence heretics. It would be naive to assume that people would normally have such humility, adaptability, and willingness to concede when their teaching has been shown false. For one thing, it’s  hard and rare that an idea is 100% refuted.
  2. Apologetics can’t replace devotional/meditational life
    Apologetics won’t make you “spiritual” in that it doesn’t, by itself, replace any regular personal spiritual practices like “quiet time” (reading Scripture and praying daily), prayer sessions, meditating on Christian truths, fasting, and so on. Apologetic content can be used for meditation, prayer, and God-honoring study, but one cannot expect that reading apologetics books will make you closer to God. It’s entirely possible to get “head strong,” intellectually arrogant, or just distracted from the “heart of Christ” by studying apologetics in an unredeemed way. A better strategy is to consciously aim your apologetic studies at honoring God. Pray before and after your study session. Remember Godly purposes in the course of your studies. Treat apologetic conversations as ministry. And so on. Apologetics can’t replace your devotional life or your meditational disciplines, but it can help support your spiritual if you approach apologetics with a conscious effort at sanctifying your studies to the glory of God.
  3. Apologetics can’t replace evangelism
    They can support each other, feed into each other, and make each other better, but neither of these can rightly replace the other. They work better as partners than as competitors.
  4. Apologetics can’t change your mind
    Underneath all our ideas, beliefs, and thoughts we have the ability to choose what we are going to accept and reject. Apologetics can inform that decision, but it can’t make that decision for us. Underneath the cognition, judgment, sentiment, reflection, and all the functions of the mind there is an act of will that no amount of apologetics can coerce.
  5. Apologetics can’t make anyone believe in Jesus
    Just as apologetics can only inform our decisions and can’t make our decisions, neither can apologetics make anyone believe in Jesus, or believe anything else for that matter. Apologetics can help us make an informed decision, but we are still left to make that decision about what to believe.
  6. Apologetics can’t undo sin or its effects.
    You may have heard of the noetic affects of sin . This refers, roughly, to the way sin has affected our mind–including cognition, reason, judgment, perception, and so on. While apologetics can help us observe and correct against our sin bias, or our selfishness, or our depressing or worldly outlook apologetics doesn’t make all these things ago away. These are pressing threats to our thought life, our heart life, and our spirituality, and apologetics simply cannot permanently fix any of these things.
  7. Apologetics can’t make you wise
    Apologetics requires wisdom and while it can help you exercise wisdom, it does not by itself make you a wise person. When we are referring to the field of theology known as apologetic theology a person can use that information wisely or foolishly. The apologist needs wisdom lest he use apologetic content in a hurtful, useless, or misleading way.
  8. Apologetics can’t make you loving
    As many people have discovered, there is no guarantee that big heads must correspond with big hearts. People can have lots of knowledge and practice in defending the faith, but for lack of wisdom and love, they are doing more harm than good.
  9. Apologetics can’t fix everything
    Apologetics is often like marital counseling in that people often don’t seek counseling till it’s too late. For example, People who were anti intellectual dogmatists or stubborn fundamentalists may flirt with apologetics just before their deconversion but it’s probably too little too late. For others, there are deeper and more complex causes at work. For example, the children of leading apologists who leave the faith. Well-trained apologetists can help fix a lot of things, but they can’t fix everything. Only Christ himself can do that, and he’s waiting till judgment day to do it.

There are many reasons people come to believe and come to doubt. A person schooled in apologetics has one more protective barrier in place to fortify their religion, but that won’t stop them if they choose to exit anyway. People can and will leave the faith, even if they have a background in apologetics, so long as they are choosing to go that direction and they left their emotional gate, or behavioral gate, or their character gate wide open. And of course, a person could  be filtering all their apologetic training through a poisoned seive, a worldview tainting everything (ex., consequentualism, scientism, logical positivism, hedonism, relativism, hyperskepticism/pyrrhonism, etc.). A person could have great apologetics in place but also have an even deeper entrenched worldview that poisons the wellspring of Christian apologetics.

Conclusion

Apologetics is a powerful and important part of Christian living, but we do well to expect only what it can deliver. It is not our messiah, Christ alone is that. It is not some universal duct tape that can “fix everything.” It has limitations. But when it’s combined with a passionate pursuit of Christ, a vested love for your fellow man, and some well-trained character, apologetics can be revolutionary.

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