Monday, November 12, 2007

The Purpose of Apologetics

1 Peter 3:15 mentions being ready to give a defense of one's faith--it also mentions doing it respectfully, an attitude I don't see much of these days. But is a defense a proof? In context, I'm not sure it is. Peter's talking about dealing with abusive people, and the point is that when you respond to bullying with God's love, the bullies (and perhaps others) will ask how you can exhibit such superhuman love. That's when you give your defense, which will probably have less to do with Creation vs. Evolution than with simply giving your testimony.

Thus Paul's "defense" in Acts 26 did not involve proofs in the modern sense. He simply gave his testimony, which bore witness to the life-changing power of God. The closest he came to apologetics in the modern sense was in Athens (Acts 17:15ff), where he mostly confronted the Athenians with instances where their own culture (especially their literature) had points of agreement with the Gospel. But he doesn't bother proving very much; he mostly asserts certain truths and appeals to shared experience.

So is apologetics wrong? No. I think it's greatly misused, however. While it is reasonable to answer critics' arguments against the Bible, for example, the goal is not so much to win converts as to defuse error. Sometimes it provides an occasion to present the truth, as when Christians had an opportunity to contrast the historical truth of the Bible with the pseudohistorical nonsense of the da Vinci Code. But notice what happens: it isn't the argumentation that wins people so much as God's Word!

Back to the title: what is the purpose of apologetics? As we've just seen, it answers accusations. But it also satisfies our human desire for rationality. We can't live without understanding, and apologetics, like systematic theology, gives us a coherent picture of our beliefs. As in Paul's case, we can seek a bridge to pagan culture, though again as in his case, it will usually break down when we get to important points such as the resurrection. Apologetics of this sort is most effective with those who are actively seeking--who want to believe but find their reason getting in the way.

The problem, then, occurs when we try to use apologetics for evangelism--especially when we use it instead of scripture. Then it becomes the very appeal from human wisdom Paul spoke against in 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:5. But what's the alternative? We'll find out next time.

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