Giving a reason for our hope

“If anybody asks why you believe as you do, be ready to tell him, and do it in a gentle and respectful way” (1 Peter 3:15, TLB).

Scenario 1: In his first lecture for a science course, your university professor presents an eloquent defense of evolution and speaks disparagingly of what he calls “illiterate creationists and misguided promoters of so-called Intelligent Design.” You and your classmates keep taking notes as some snickers are heard. As you silently file out of the lecture hall, one of your fellow students asks, “What do you think of evolution?”

Scenario 2: During a lunch break at a convention, a colleague notices your menu selection and asks if you’re vegetarian. As you discuss the presentations, he asks what you think of a panel discussion that has taken place on Saturday. As the friendly discussion ensues, he observes, “You seem like a smart person. So, why do you believe in God?”

Scenario 3: Your seatmate on a long flight is devouring the best-seller The Da Vinci Code. In the meantime, you’ve been reading and underlining a Christian journal. Your fellow traveler turns to you and asks, “Have you read this book? The author says Jesus married Mary Magdalene and that this fact was suppressed by Christian leaders. He also says the divinity of Christ was invented by the council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. This is amazing!”

How would you respond to these questions?

* * * * * * *

Over the centuries, God’s followers have fought their crucial battles on the terrain of the human mind. It is in this arena that arguments are weighed, conclusions are reached, and crucial decisions made. This is where reason and will are engaged.

Jesus was well aware of the tremendous potential for ideas to reach and change us. “You will know the truth,” He said, “and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32, NIV).1 And he added, “‘I am the truth’” (John 14:6).

Seventh-day Adventists, particularly those who attend public colleges and universities or are engaged in professional careers, regularly face questions regarding their beliefs, convictions, and lifestyle. These queries are posed by fellow Christians as well as by atheists, agnostics, and followers of other world religions.

We usually respond to these questions by offering rational arguments, providing evidence, or quoting Scripture, depending on the circumstance. We also pray silently that the Holy Spirit grant us supernatural help in offering an answer that will eventually lead others “into all truth” (John 16:13). Whenever we give reasons for our beliefs, we engage in a 2000-year-old activity validated by believers through the centuries–Christian apologetics.

In this essay we will seek to: (1) understand Bible-anchored apologetics as a valuable strategy for Christian witness; (2) examine the approach used by New Testament authors in explaining and defending core Christian beliefs; (3) outline the biblical mandate and method for doing apologetics; (4) review the value and limits of this endeavor; and finally (5) propose an agenda for the future.

Toward a definition

The word apologetics comes from the Greek word apologia, which originally meant a speech of defense or an answer given in reply to a legal query, usually during a judicial procedure. Adopted by the early Christians, the word was used eight times in the New Testament, mostly by Paul, either as a noun (apologia) or a verb (apologeomai) to communicate a sense of defense or vindication.2 At its core, this defense centered on the person of Jesus Christ–His divinity and humanity, His death and resurrection, His forgiveness and promise of eternal life beyond the tomb, and the certain hope of His return in glory.

The New Testament provides several examples of apologetics in varied settings. For example, as a response to persecution (1 Peter 3:8-18), as a deliberate argument before a hostile religious audience (Acts 17:1-9), as a speech in front of an educated but skeptical group (Acts 17:16-34), as a personal defense of a consistent Christian witness (1 Corinthians 9:19-23), and as a personal witness for the truth of Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-4; John 20:30).3

During the second century, the noun apologia and the verb apologeomai began to acquire a more technical meaning. The word apologists was then used to refer to a group of expositors who defended Christian beliefs and practices against various attacks, including charges of illegal and immoral activities.

Since the early 1800s, apologetics has been considered a discipline with various specialized branches, all defending the Christian faith from various perspectives–ethical, historical, philosophical, religious, scientific, or theological.

In its broader sense, apologetics has three dimensions. It is (1) a rational explanation of core Christian beliefs and teachings based on arguments and evidence; (2) a defense of Christianity in response to objections and criticisms; and (3) a challenge to and a refutation of opposing systems or deviant ideologies. In its first dimension, apologetics shows that Christianity is reasonable. In its second dimension, it demonstrates that Christianity is not unreasonable. In the third dimension, apologetics shows that non-Christian thought is unreasonable.

James W. Sire, an experienced evangelical apologist, offers this definition: “Christian apologetics lays before the watching world such a winsome embodiment of the Christian faith that for any and all who are willing to observe there will be an intellectually and emotionally credible witness to its fundamental truth.”4

New Testament apologetics

A careful reading of the New Testament reveals that early on, in addition to proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, “the infant church carried out her apologetical encounter with Judaism, with paganism, and with deviant tendencies that arose within the Christian community.”5

Although the four Gospel writers were primarily concerned with telling the story of Jesus, it is possible to detect in the background a desire to answer and perhaps even anticipate questions and objections from Christian believers, honest inquirers, and cynical opponents. These questions included: Wasn’t the Messiah supposed to be not only a direct descendant of David but also a native and resident of Bethlehem? Did He really perform miracles that were witnessed by others? Why wasn’t Jesus recognized as the Messiah even by His followers, and why was He rejected and ultimately condemned by the religious authorities? Why was Judas chosen as a disciple, when Jesus knew he would betray Him? Why did Jesus have to suffer a common criminal’s death on a cross? Is there sufficient evidence that He actually died and came back to life on the third day? Where did Jesus go after His ascension, and why did He go there? Why hasn’t He returned as promised? Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John carefully provide answers to these and other key questions, taking into consideration the audience to whom their writings were principally addressed.

In the Book of Acts, Luke depicts the apologetic approach used by the apostles and other early Christian leaders as the church begins to expand its reach during the second half of the first century. Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin outlines the arguments used by the fledgling movement as it confronts the Jewish establishment. Peter’s sermon at Pentecost and his speech in the house of Cornelius reveal a Christianity whose scope is broadening.

As Paul’s missionary trips reach ever deeper into Roman territory, Christianity engages the pagans of Lystra, the cultured Greeks of Athens, and the pragmatic Romans. During these encounters and in repeated conflicts with Jewish believers, the apostle emerges as a powerful apologist for the living Christ and the gospel’s truth. His epistles reveal a committed mind, a masterful use of language, and a deep understanding of Jewish, Greek, and Roman culture–all of which is used first, to explain and defend Christianity, and second, to offer a powerful critique of Christian heresies and non-Christian worldviews. He writes forcefully, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4, 5).

Finally, the letter addressed to the Hebrews presents a forceful defense of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, as the perfect sacrifice for redemption from sin, and as mediator between humans and God. Christianity thus becomes the true religion, superseding Judaism.

Mandate and method

A key New Testament passage provides the mandate and outlines the method for Christian apologetics. We find it in 1 Peter 3:15 and it is worth quoting it in the context of the previous and following verses: “Do not be frightened. But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”

Let’s unpack the key components of this passage:

A review of biblical examples in apologetics reveals that the method used by the apologist varies according to the situation and the context. The explanation and defense of Christian truths may take place in a private conversation, as a lecture in an educational setting, as a public debate, or in writing. The audience may be friendly, curious, or hostile, or a mixture of the three. Hence, the argumentation and rhetoric employed will vary according to the circumstances.

The value of apologetics

At its best, apologetics seeks to eliminate obstacles, open avenues of understanding, and persuade people of the truth and credibility of the Christian faith. Ultimately, the believer engaging in apologetics wants to help non-Christians commit their lives to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and behave in ways consistent with that commitment.7

Biblical Christianity’s claim sets itself apart from non-Christian theists, such as Jews and Muslims. The differences center mostly on the person of Jesus Christ. Both Jews and Muslims find it difficult to believe that Christ is God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, who became incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth, who died and resurrected, who offers salvation to those who accept Him, and who will come again in glory to this world. Agnostics and atheists, on the other hand, not only doubt or deny that God exists, but also that He created the universe, communicates with human beings in various ways, performs miracles, and will grant eternal life to those who believe and trust in Him.

Obviously, Christian apologetics is not for the soft-minded or weak-hearted! It demands deep reflection, continuing study, and humble courage. In addition, rational arguments that provide support for biblical faith are also valuable for Christians whenever they have sincere intellectual questions about core Christian beliefs. And this is a common occurrence among thoughtful Christians. Such arguments, however, are not proofs or demonstrations that would compel all rational people that God exists or that Christianity is true. Nonetheless, they provide evidence that the biblical-Christian worldview is coherent, believable, and more reasonable than its competitors.

Thus, engaging in apologetics helps establish the faith of Christian believers and provides them with arguments to explain and defend their convictions as they interact with seekers, skeptics, critics, and followers of other religions. Apologetics compels Christians to master the biblical worldview, to understand and be able to critique the culture that surrounds them, and, in a foreign missionary setting, to become well acquainted with the culture and worldview of those to whom they wish to bring a saving knowledge of the gospel.

The limits of apologetics

Adventists engaged in the explanation and the defense of their faith commitments need to recognize the limits of apologetics. Rational arguments cannot serve as the foundation of belief. Neither will such arguments necessarily bring non-believers to faith.8 “[A] Christ like life,” wrote Ellen White, “is the most powerful argument that can be advanced in favor of Christianity.… Not all the books written can serve the purpose of a holy life.”9 Moreover, in our natural condition we are unwilling to submit ourselves to God. Were it not for the subtle but powerful influence of the Holy Spirit we would not recognize our lostness and our desperate need of a Savior. That was precisely why Jesus came to this world–“‘to seek and to save the lost’” (Luke 19:10, RSV).

Nonetheless, apologetics can help create the context for respectful dialogue and can aid in building bridges of understanding with seekers. Thoughtful apologetics can also strengthen Adventists by fostering inquiry and removing obstacles to the development of a deeper, more mature faith. Ellen White wrote: “The truths of the divine word can be best appreciated by an intellectual Christian. Christ can be best glorified by those who serve Him intelligently.”10 However, our worldview and our arguments should be anchored in the Scriptures, which are divine revelation for human beings of all times. We must also be balanced Christians, avoiding the extremes of rationalism and emotionalism–lifeless disputes and unreliable feelings.

When it is solidly based on the Scriptures, reason is not an enemy of faith and can instead be a strong ally. God Himself created us with the ability to think and to choose. Jesus declared that “the first and greatest commandment” required loving God with all our “mind” (see Matthew 22:37, 38; also Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27). A consecrated Christian life involves submitting all we are to Jesus, who is Truth. Loving God implies obeying His will, which must be understood rationally in order to act upon it.

In addition, “reason at least has veto power. We can’t believe what we know to be untrue, and we can’t love what we believe to be unreal. Arguments may not bring you to faith, but they can certainly keep you away from faith. Therefore we must join the battle of arguments.”11

James E. Taylor, a contemporary Christian apologist, argues for finding a middle ground between overemphasis on reason and overemphasis on faith: “Too much confidence in reason may lead to doubt or unbelief because no combination of arguments and evidences can prove conclusively that God exists or that Christianity is true.… However, too much emphasis on faith to the exclusion of reason may also lead to doubt or unbelief because there are legitimate questions of an intellectual sort about Christianity, such as the problem of evil or the problem of religious pluralism, that trouble sincere believers and seekers.”12

Ultimately, the various factors that lead a person to commit his or her life to Christ are beyond human comprehension and control. They usually involve a combination of personal experiences, human relationships, cumulative rational evidences, the intercessory prayer of friends, and the ever-present, powerful influence of the Holy Spirit.

The task ahead

Our civilization is experiencing a deep crisis of truth. The idea of objective truth is being attacked or completely abandoned in postmodern culture. Multiple creeds and ideologies compete with biblical Christianity around the world. At its deepest level, the crisis of our time is spiritual.

Adventist colleges and universities can help prepare our future ministers and professionals in critical thinking, acquainting them with the current ideas that oppose biblical Christianity, and showing how to answer opposing arguments. Our thought leaders need to be able to argue for the truths of Christianity and the solidity of Adventist beliefs in the give-and-take of real life.

More materials prepared by and for Adventists will also be useful in this important task. For example, a handbook on Adventist apologetics would be helpful to these students, to the thousands of Adventists attending public institutions of higher learning, and also to Adventist professionals who wish to have at hand ready answers to questions about their faith.

Ultimately, our struggle as Seventh-day Adventists is against secular unbelief and misguided beliefs, not against the atheists, agnostics, followers of other religions, or heretics themselves. In fact, by God’s grace, each of them is a potential citizen of the new kingdom that Christ will establish. Our respect for individuals created in the image of God must lead us to polish our arguments and invigorate our outreach. Without apology, we should be always ready to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3).

Humberto M. Rasi (Ph.D., Stanford University) is the author of many articles and editor of several books. He served as chief editor of Dialogue for almost 20 years. A longer version of this essay was presented during the III Symposium on the Bible and Adventist Scholarship, and can be found in http://fae.adventist.org. His e-mail address: h.rasi@roadrunner.com.

References

  1. Unless otherwise indicated, all Bible passages are quoted from the New International Version.
  2. New Testament passages in which the worlds apologia or apologeomai are used include:
  3. Acts 22:1: “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.”

    Acts 25:16: “An opportunity to defend himself against their charges.”

    1 Corinthians 9:3: “This is my defense to those who sit in judgment of me.”

    2 Corinthians 7:11: “. . . what eagerness to clear yourselves.”

    Philippians 1:7. “Whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel.”

    Philippians 1:16: “Knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.”

    2 Timothy 4:16: “At my first defense, no one came to my support.”

    1 Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you.”

  4. See James W. Sire, A Little Primer on Humble Apologetics (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2006), pp. 14-25.
  5. Ibid., p. 26.
  6. Avery Cardinal Dulles, A History of Apologetics, 2nd ed. (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 2005), pp. 1ff.
  7. See James W. Sire, Why Good Arguments Often Fail: Making a More Persuasive Case for Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2006).
  8. See Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr., Faith Has Its Reasons: An Integrative Approach to Defending Christianity (Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress, 2001), pp. 17-22.
  9. Paul’s address on Mars Hill brought some results, since “a few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others” (Acts 17:34). However, Paul was aware of the limits of argumentation: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.… Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 20, 21).
  10. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1948), vol. 9, p. 21.
  11. Ibid., vol. 3, p. 160.
  12. Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994), p. 21.
  13. James E. Taylor, Introducing Apologetics: Cultivating Christian Commitment (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006), p. 12. See also my article “Faith, Reason, and the Educated Christian,” College and University Dialogue 15:3 (2003), pp. 5-9, 16.