Defending Nothing, Evangelizing No One

Craig A. Parton
Friday, May 20th 2016
May/Jun 2011

I had not unpacked my suitcase in the freshman dorm at college before Christians descended upon me like mongrel hordes. One in particular was my Resident Advisor or “RA.” He was a senior (thus worthy of genuflection) and a leader in an evangelical organization on campus. His bookshelf was stuffed with the best of apologetical literature. He chose to live in my lowly world, I later discovered, for the sole purpose of evangelizing forsaken freshmen.

When not having the gospel presented in compelling form to me by my RA, I was repeatedly challenged on campus by evangelical Christians who were zealously contending for the faith. These were Christians who simply stated what Christianity was and why I should believe it. They brought me what Luke the Physician calls the “many convincing proofs” related to the case for Christ (Acts 1:3). These were Christians familiar with John Warwick Montgomery, C. S. Lewis, and F. F. Bruce.(1) And when my gas gauge of questions veered toward empty, they called for a verdict—namely, to receive Jesus as my Savior.

After becoming a Christian, I was almost immediately catechized into Montgomery, Lewis, and Bruce, and then returned back almost as immediately to the marketplace to talk with non-Christians. It was normal for me and two of my roommates to join the staff of missionary groups after graduation, a platform that allowed me an opportunity to contend for the truth of Christianity at over one hundred universities and colleges.

So what? Today’s secular college freshmen are also being exposed to a persuasively defended gospel and given “tough” and “tender” minded evidences(2) that call for a verdict, right? Were it so. I could be off base on this, but my take is that defending the faith (how negative can you be?) is now considered by many Christians to be the approach of misguided zealots who preach mind-numbing creeds rather than heart-stirring deeds. Evangelism gets top prize now for “the most offensive extra-curricular activity,” as it chafes the Trinitarian foundations of modern thought exemplified in religious pluralism (there are many ways), cultural diversity (all ways are arbitrary), and epistemological relativism (no way is the only way).

But didn’t our Lord say something about going and proclaiming the good news? Evangelism, as I recall it, requires: 1) an evangel; 2) knowledge of what that evangel is;(3) and 3) proclamation of that evangel to others so that they may believe. Instead of doing the often hard labor of defending the faith and evangelizing the lost (which involves study in order to understand objections to Christianity), Christians are encouraged to tighten their abs by investing in Body Gospel(4) instead of proclaiming the gospel. Unbelief welcomes the new evangel of Christian living.

We are at a remarkable moment in church history, not because of the power of three centuries of secularism or because of the unanswerable objections posed by brilliant unbelievers. Nor is it because of the challenge of Islam or because of the influence of Eastern religions with their ability to insert a Yoga class into every Christian church’s weekly calendar of events. What is remarkable is the loss of confidence in there being any point in defending the faith anymore. Along with this, and because of this, has come a growing disinterest in evangelism. Proclaiming the gospel does not motivate like “being the gospel.”

The church thought it could ignore apologetics with no harm to evangelism. Now the church finds the gospel itself is denied by its new evangelists. Oh Apologetics, where art thou?

What We Ignored: Apologetics

The term from which we get our word “apologetics” comes from the Greek text of 1 Peter 3:15: “Be ready always to give a defense (apologia) for the hope that is within you, yet with gentleness and reverence.” We get two broadsides from this passage.

First, apologetics, or defending the faith, is biblically commanded. It is not optional to give a reason for the hope that is within us, nor is it relegated to the pastoral office or to a special class of “intellectual” Christians. Second, sharing you (whether it is your heart or your testimony) is not biblical, let alone apostolic, apologetics. Instead, we are to give reasons for believing in Jesus’ perfect life, atoning death, and resurrection from the dead, and are to proclaim that evidence that demands a verdict.

Apologetics is not only biblically commanded, it also has a long and noble history. There was even an “Age of the Apologists” in the second, third, and fourth centuries that developed a Hall of Fame of defenders of the faith (Cyprian, Irenaeus, Ambrose, Eusebius, Tertullian, and Augustine). In fact, there is even an impressive pedigree of lawyers who have investigated the truth-claims of Christianity and found them compelling.(5) One justly wonders then how we get to a contemporary situation where pastors (who should have received the most comprehensive training in this area) are often fortunate to have even one course on apologetics as their preparation for ministering to a culture steeped in three hundred years of secularism.

Apologetics is about giving reasons. It is not, therefore, simply a form of philosophy in which one engages in endless discussions of the ontological argument for the existence of God, nor is it a species of systematic theology (a view commonly held by some Calvinist presuppositionalists), nor is it simply a subset of preaching (a uniquely Lutheran view that has tended to mean that Mr. Layman may stay in the domain of potlucks and church committees and away from pagans).

There is something to learn from the fact that the most effective apologists in the last century were not trained in formal theology at all (Lewis, Chesterton, Sayers, Williams, and Tolkien). One need not have a seminary education to be effective in the defense of the faith. The church will benefit from both well-equipped laypeople and a learned clergy.

What We Lost From What We Ignored: Evangelism and the Gospel

We ignored apologetics and lost what apologetics was defending. Well, what is it we are defending in apologetics? The gospel, of course! Or, to be more specific, what Lewis called “Mere Christianity.” Think of those central propositions of the Apostles’ Creed. Another way to think of it: Apologetical energy should be spent on defending something to do with either the formal principle of all theology (Scripture and its reliability and authority) or the material principle of Scripture (Jesus Christ and the gospel).

But this is exactly where so many well-meaning Christians missed the 3:10 train to Yuma. Because the gospel is not the center and circumference of their theology (it is just one of many equally important doctrines), they end up with what is secondary in Scripture becoming primary, while what is primary becomes secondary. Interminable arguments are centered on, for example, what went on before time, or at the beginning of time, or what happens at the end of time. Speculation has the front seat and facts have the backseat or no seat.

So, apologetics is about the defense of the faith and specifically of the gospel. What then is the gospel? Just this: Christ died for sinners and you qualify.(6) The gospel is all about what was done for you and in spite of you. We are the problem, not the solution, and any “apologetic” that is about your anything (except your sin) is decidedly not defending the gospel.

In summary, when defending the faith, stop every once in a while and ask: Is what I just discussed with that unbeliever in the Apostles’ Creed or not? If not, a flare should go up that you are very likely headed off the train trestle.

The church thought it could ignore apologetics with no harm to evangelism or the gospel. Guilty of not contending for the faith, the church is in danger of forgetting that there is something worth believing in and contending for.

Culture Pays the Price for What We Have Ignored and Lost

The roots of modern secularism go back three centuries to the earliest attempts at supposedly “safe” biblical criticism aimed at the first books of the Old Testament.(7) Surgery on the Old Testament was soon applied to the New, and untethered man quickly concluded he did not need any word from God to give him either morals (found so obviously in nature and her laws) or an explanation for the origin of the species. Hegel’s dialectic, Marx’s economic metaphysic, Darwin’s natural selection, and Wagner’s romanticizing of the past all provided compelling secular means of grace for modern man to conclude that he could now safely jettison orthodox Christianity and return to Eden.(8) The Bible was dead. God was dead. Man was free and had in hand a self-diagnosis of perfect health. This brief moment of peace ended with World War I and the entrails-filled trenches of Verdun, the same forsaken sumps in which C. S. Lewis buried the vestiges of his Christian faith.(9)

Intellectuals (and, of course, general culture shortly thereafter) went from optimism in man’s ability to save himself to utter pessimism and a retreat into existential despair. The French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus summarized it so cheerfully: “A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers. After that vigorous definition, the subject will be, if I may say so, exhausted.”(10) Instead of proclaiming the faith once delivered to the saints and defending it with the sharp arguments honed over the centuries by apologists from Cyprian to Chesterton, the church defaulted from defending the gospel to a misguided attempt to “be” the gospel. The casualties have been the loss of apologetics, the loss of evangelism, and the loss of the gospel.

Ignorance Is Bliss for Some Lutherans and Reformed

Just when Christians had every reason to provide factual responses to the challenges of speculative worldviews, Lutheran and Reformed teachings presented theological reasons not to do effective apologetics. Reformed apologists, emphasizing the noetic effects of sin (i.e., the effects of sin on our ability to have knowledge) and total depravity, saw the persuasion of pagans as epistemologically and morally doomed. Some Lutherans, having never actually talked to a pagan about the case for Christianity, happily folded what might be left of apologetics into the office of preaching. Preaching was done solely by the trained clergy. In any event, “reason-based” apologetics could be done only by those who were theologically Arminian, though they may not have been theologically literate enough to know it.

Liberal Christians, of course, believed that there really was nothing worth defending that was not part of ethics. Apologetics was a dubious activity since the Bible was full of errors and contradictions, but one could still find a Jesus of love and pacifism.(11) Fundamentalists associated reaching the lost with compromising their piety. Better to focus on Christian living and end-times seminars than to interact with those who have questions about the faith. And if one must talk to a non-Christian, it is too easy to speak about one’s own heart and private subjective feelings; after all, one’s testimony cannot be disproven.

Recovering What We Ignored

Our situation today? A multiplicity of religious options are being presented, essentially all claiming to change one’s life, and none of them offering anything that resembles persuasive factual evidence. The Christian church has the answers. In fact, offering evidence for belief is unique to Christian truth-claims. Apologetics that focuses on the case for Christ is not antithetical to evangelism. In fact, such a defense of the faith is evangelism.

Classical theologians rightly presented saving faith as grounded on notitia (knowledge) or facts.(12) That much was fundamental. The content of the gospel is the perfect life and atoning death of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world and rising from the dead for our justification. That is the notitia of saving faith and the special domain of apologetics. Saving faith is built on saving facts, and one must assent to those facts and agree they are true (assensus). That assent, however, does not save since even Satan assented to the truth of who Christ was (why else did he show Jesus the kingdoms of this world unless he knew the jig was up?). But finally, there must be trust or fiducia in those facts as true pro me (“for me”). Perhaps a crass analogy, but think of it this way: It is not enough to have $1 million in the bank, or to assent that the million is in the bank, if you instead decide to live like a pauper. You need to draw on what is in your account or you live and die a beggar.

The church has skipped notitia and assensus (where apologetics operates), and lives solely now in the domain of direct appeals to fiducia (being “born again” and constant talk about “faith”).

Instead of providing biblical, historical, scientific, and legal evidences on behalf of the Christian position,(13) Christians have jettisoned the apostolic admonition. Instead of learning the many convincing proofs, they are way too busy learning the purpose-driven life while grooving to Body Gospel.

In Summation: Don’t Ignore This!

It is not apologetics instead of evangelism. It is not apologetics versus evangelism. It is not apologetics without evangelism. Apologetics that centers on the facticity and centrality of the death and resurrection of our Lord for the forgiveness of sins is apologetics as evangelism.

1 [ Back ] See John Warwick Montgomery's History, Law and Christianity (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Canadian Institute for Law, Theology and Public Policy, 2002); C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity (New York: MacMillan & Co., 1970); and F. F. Bruce's The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids: Eerdman's, 1987).
2 [ Back ] For further reading on the distinction between tough and tender minded evidences, see two volumes of edited articles: Christianity for the Tough Minded (Minneapolis: Bethany Books, 1973); and Myth, Allegory and Gospel (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Canadian Institute for Law, Theology and Public Policy, 2000). See also Bernard Ramm, Types of Apologetic Systems (Wheaton: Van Kampen Press, 1953), which presents apologetical approaches based on "subjective immediacy" (Pascal, Kierkegaard, Brunner), "natural theology" (Aquinas, Butler, and Tennant), and those "stressing revelation" (Augustine, Van Til, and Carnell).
3 [ Back ] Approximately 30% of born-again American "Christians" now deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Dan Barker, Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists (Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 2008), 277, footnotes 4 and 5.
4 [ Back ] The latest "get buffed with Jesus" infomercial.
5 [ Back ] Philip Johnson lists over ninety lawyers who have written on the truth-claims of Christianity, ranging from Hugo Grotius (the "father of international law") in the 1600s to the present day, with such apologists as Sir Norman Anderson, Lord Hailsham, Jacques Ellul, and John Warwick Montgomery. See Johnson's "Juridical Apologetics 1600-2000 A.D.: A Bio Bibliographical Essay," Global Journal of Classical Theology, vol. 3, no. 1 (March 2002): 1-25.
6 [ Back ] Rod Rosenbladt, both in public lectures and in personal conversation.
7 [ Back ]John Warwick Montgomery, The Law Above the Law (Minneapolis: Bethany Books, 1975).
8 [ Back ] Jacques Barzun, Darwin, Marx & Wagner: A Critique of a Heritage (New York: Little, Brown, 1958).
9 [ Back ] C. S. Lewis, Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), esp. 20, and the poem "De Profundis," which Lewis begins: "Come let us curse our Master ere we die, For all our hopes in endless ruin lie. The good is dead. Let us curse God most High."
10 [ Back ] Albert Camus, The Fall (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), 6-7.
11 [ Back ] Willard Sperry, "Yes, But": The Bankruptcy of Apologetics (New York: Harper & Bros., 1931).
12 [ Back ] This epistemology was fundamental to the apologetical focus of the Old Princeton school (Alexander, Hodge, Warfield) and their "Christian Baconism," which was squarely based on the basic pillar of facts, facts, facts. Theodore Dwight Bozeman, Protestants in an Age of Science (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), 173.
13 [ Back ]For the best summary of the array of evidences, see John Warwick Montgomery's Tructutus Logico Theologicus, 4th ed. (Bonn: Culture & Science, 2009), esp. Proposition 3 ("Historical, jurisprudential, and scientific standards of evidence offer the touchstone for resolving the religious predicament by establishing the truth claims of Christian proclamation"), 65-128.

Friday, May 20th 2016

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