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0 An Introduction to Christian Apologetics - 1

By: Dr.Paul Coulter
What is ‘Apologetics’?

What is ‘Apologetics’?
The term ’apologetics’ derives from the Greek word apologia. Although it is derived from the same word as the English noun ’apology’ and adjective ’apologetic’ the meaning is quite significantly different. In the ancient Greek world an apologia was a legal defence of oneself, similar to the speech a modern day defence lawyer makes on behalf of their client. It did not mean “a regretful acknowledgement of an offence or failure” (the Oxford English Dictionary definition of ’apology’) but a carefully reasoned defence of one’s beliefs or actions.

We might, then, define Christian apologetics as follows:
The task of developing and sharing arguments for the truth and rationality of Christianity and the falsehood and irrationality of alternatives with the aim of strengthening the faith of believers and provoking non believers to consider Christ

The significance of this definition will become clearer throughout this article, but at this point it is important to emphasise that ’argument’ in this context refers to a logical, reasoned case rather than an argumentative style. Apologetics includes both developing and sharing arguments – it is not a purely academic exercise conducted in an ivory tower, but a practical engagement with real people and real problems. You will also notice that there are two sides to the arguments we seek to develop – a positive case for Christianity and a negative case against alternative belief systems. Furthermore, the ultimate aims of apologetics are not to develop clever arguments but to see people led to faith and strengthened in their faith.

What Are the Origins of Apologetics?
In the second century AD, as Christianity began to engage at an intellectual level with Greek philosophy and attractedgreater attention from Roman society, a number of writers produced reasoned defences of the Christian faith. Of these Justin Martyr (c. 100165 AD), a gentile from Samaria who was converted after seeking truth in numerous philosophies and eventually died as a martyr in Rome, is probably the best known and the most significant. These writers are generally referred to as ‘the apologists’. Their writings collectively show three major concerns:

●To defend Christianity against false accusations (e.g. that Christians were atheists, sexually immoral or cannibals)

●To argue for the truth of Christianity on the basis that it fulfilled Old Testament prophecy

●To show that Christianity was superior to or fulfilled Greek philosophical ideas

Other eminent Christians of this period were disparaging of the approach of the apologists. For example, Tertullian criticized  Justin’s use of Greek philosophy, saying famously, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?  This difference of opinion continues to divide evangelical Christians today. Some have a positive approach towards apologetics, believing thatall truth is God’s truth and that it is important to defend Christianity in the realm of philosophical debate, whereas others are suspicious of apologetics and argue that we should put our energies into proclaiming the gospel instead.

Interestingly, all three of the main lines of argument advanced by the apologists of the second century find precedents in the New Testament book of Acts, making Luke (or perhaps Paul, whose words he recorded) the first recorded Christian apologist. Renowned biblical scholar F.F. Bruce wrote [1]:

Of three main types of Christian apologetic in the second century Luke provides first century prototypes: apologetic in relation to pagan religion (Christianity is true; paganism is false); apologetic in relation to Judaism (Christianity represents the fulfillment of true Judaism); apologetic in relation to the political authorities (Christianity is innocent of any offence against Roman law).

So, then, apologetics originated in the New Testament (see the later section on A biblical case for the task of apologetics), developing further in the second century in response to challenges encountered as it crossed cultural boundaries into the Graeco Roman world. Throughout the history of Christianity apologetics has continued to adapt to new cultural challenges.

For a short overview of the history of Christian apologetics, including profiles of the leading figures in the development of modern apologetics, the reader is referred to the online article A Brief History of Apologetics by Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman.[2]

What is the Purpose of Apologetics?
Apologetics is generally said to have three functions, although it should be realised that not all Christian apologists accept that all three functions are valid (some would say that we should not try to construct positive arguments for Christian faith but simply focus on refuting accusations against it) and there is considerable variation between different schools of apologetics as to what arguments should be used within each function:

1) Arguments for the truth of the Christian faith (vindication / proof / positive apologetics)Aim – to show that Christianity is reasonable / rational. Using philosophical arguments and evidence from science, archaeology and history to show that the Christian faith has greater power than any alternative belief system to explain and interpret the world we live in.

2) Arguments refuting accusations made against the Christian faith (defence / negative apologetics) Aim – to show that Christianity is not unreasonable / irrational. Removing objections that are made against Christianity, for example claims of contradictions in the Bible, alternative interpretations of historical and scientific evidence and misconceptions about Christian belief.

3) Refutation of opposing beliefs (offense) Aim – to show that nonChristian belief systems are unreasonable / irrational. Focuses not on specific attacks against Christianity but on undermining the foundations of other belief systems.

Some writers add a fourth function, namely persuasion. They claim that apologetics also aims to persuade people to believe in the Christian message. It is probably better to see the task of persuasion as the overarching aim of apologetics, with the three functions above playing different parts within it. This is a helpful reminder of the fact that apologetics alone is not enough – evangelism is also necessary.

Another way to think about the purpose of apologetics is to think about how it relates to those who are believers and those who are nonbelievers.

Apologetics aims both to strengthen the faith of the faithful and to remove obstacles to faith for those who do not believe.

How Does Apologetics Relate to Evangelism?
'Evangelism' is generally understood to mean sharing the good news message (gospel) about Jesus Christ. Apologetics is best seen as either preevangelism or as part of the process of evangelism. It removes barriers to belief and prepares the ground for the seed of the gospel to be sown. It is vital not to divorce apologetics strictly from evangelism. It is unlikely that people who have intellectual objections to the existence of God or the historicity of Jesus will receive the gospel message, and apologetics will help to remove these obstacles by appealing to intellectual reasoning. At the same time, a person could be intellectually convinced of the credibility and even the truth of the Christian faith but still not be a Christian. The gospel appeals not only to the mind, it also appeals to the emotions and, most importantly of all, to the will. Conversion occurs when mind, heart and will are surrendered to God in repentance and faith. As such it will often be wise to share the gospel as we engage in apologetic arguments.

Approaches to Apologetics
There are numerous different ways to approach the task of apologetics and it is not always easy to classify different approaches. No one scheme of classification gains universal support. Two possible ways of classifying common approaches are:

a) Depending on the approach to knowing truth about God (i.e. religious epistemologies) Can truth about God be discovered through human reason in response to observations about the world (empiricism), through a critical appraisal of the inherent logic of different belief systems (rationalism), through Scripture alone (Biblical authoritarianism), through personal experience (mysticism), or through a combination of these means? The debate over these different means of discovering truth about God depends on our belief about:
●God – is greater stress placed on His transcendence (the fact that He is beyond our knowing) or His immanence (the fact that He has revealed Himself to us and can be known).

●Sin – how has sin affected the ability of humans to apprehend truth about God (the effects of sin on the mind are called the noetic effects of sin).

Differing emphases on God’s transcendence and the noetic effects of sin lead to three distinct starting points for apologetics, as the following table shows:

Noetic effects of
Starting point for
Historic examples
How can God be
Strong emphasis on both
The unique Christian

experience of grace
Blaise Pascal; Søren
Kierkegaard; Emil

Less strongly emphasised
Proofs from nature and
historic evidences
Thomas Aquinas; Joseph
Butler; Dominic Tennant
Less strongly

Scripture (God’s
Augustine of Hippo; Jean
Calvin; Abraham Kuyper
Faith and reason

b) Depending on the way arguments are constructed
Steven B. Cowan argues for a more practical classification of apologetic methods on the basis of “distinctive ways of presenting the case for Christianity, distinctive types or structures of argument[3].” He identifies five approaches:

1) Classical method (e.g. William Lane Craig, R.C. Sproul, Norman Geisler, Stephen T. Davis, Richard Swinburne) Aims to establish theism through arguments from nature then to present evidences to prove that Christianity is the correct version of theism. Most proponents of this method claim that there is no point presenting arguments from historical evidence until the person has embraced a theistic worldview as they will always interpret them based on their own worldview.

2) Evidential method (e.g. Gary R. Habermas, John W. Montgomery, Clark Pinnock, Wolfhart Pannenberg) Uses both historical and philosophical arguments but focuses primarily on historical and other evidence for the truth of Christianity. Will argue at the same time both for theism in general and Christianity in particular.

3) Cumulative case method (e.g. Paul D. Feinberg, Basil Mitchell, C.S. Lewis, C. Stephen Evans) Rather than approaching the task as a formal logical argument, sees the case for Christianity as more like the brief a lawyer makes in a law court – an informal argument drawing together evidence that together makes a compelling case with which no other hypothesis can compete.

4) Presuppositional method (e.g. John M. Frame, Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Clark, Greg Bahnsen, Francis Schaeffer) Emphasises the noetic effects of sin to the degree that believers and unbelievers will not share enoughcommon ground for the preceding three methods to accomplish their goal. The apologist must presuppose the truth of Christianity as the proper starting point for apologetics. All experience is interpreted and all truth known through the Christian revelation in the Scriptures.

5) Reformed epistemology method (e.g. Kelly James Clark, Alvin Platinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, George Mavrodes, William Alston) Argues that people believe many things without evidence and that this is perfectly reasonable. Although positive arguments in defence of Christianity are not necessarily wrong, belief in God does not need the support of evidence or argument to be rational. The focus, therefore, tends to be more on negative apologetics, defending against challenges to theistic belief.

The book Cowan edited, entitled Five Views on Apologetics (Zondervan, 2000) contains chapters by proponents of each of these five approaches as well as responses to each chapter by the other four contributors. It is a helpful, although fairly technical, attempt to show the commonalities and differences between different approaches.

A third way: four methodologies
Although I agree that Cowan’s categories are very helpful, I prefer a fourway  categorisation of approaches that is used by Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman, which combines both the epistemology and the approach to constructing arguments. The four methodologies they identify are Classical apologetics, Evidential apologetics, Reformed apologetics and Fideism. It should be obvious that three of these four approaches are identical to three of Cowan’s: classical, evidential, and Reformed. Cowan’s ’cumulative case method’ is a distinct approach to formulating arguments but since it draws together insights from the classical and evidential methods it is not strictly a distinct approach to apologetics. Cowan’s presuppositional method is largely subsumed under Reformed apologetics in this fourfold scheme (a careful reading of the descriptions above will show that they have much in common). The fourth approach in the Boa and Bowman scheme, which is not covered in Cowan’s classification although it shares ground with some people Cowan would class as ’presuppositionalists’, is Fideism. This position correlates to the first line of the table of religious epistemologies, as it identifies faith as the sole way to know God and appeals to the Christian experience of God’s grace as the only appropriate basis for apologetics.
The following table, adapted from Boa and Bowman, details the characteristics of these four approaches to apologetics [4]:


William Paley
Calvin; Thomas Reid
Luther; Kierkegaard
C20th advocates
C.S.Lewis; Norman Geisler
J.W.Montgomery; Richard Swinburne
Cornelius Van Til; Alvin Platinga
Karl Barth; Donald Bloesch
Popular with
Catholics; evangelicals
Lutherans; neoevangelicals

In practice it is not always easy to place apologists neatly into any one methodology as many use different approaches depending on the question at hand. It is probably best to see these approaches as tools in a toolkit or weapons in an armoury. We can freely draw on different approaches depending on the situation in which we find ourselves. We will return to this idea in the section entitled The dynamic of apologetic dialogue.

Common Objections to the Task of Apologetics
Christians who are sceptical about the value of apologetics raise a number of different objections, some based on verses from the Bible and others based on limitations of logic and apologetics. These objections are generally based on misunderstandings of the Bible text or of the purpose of apologetics. In the list of objections that follows I am indebted to Norman Geisler although I have made some changes to his list and have significantly modified his responses:

A] Objections from the Bible
1. The Bible does not need to be defended
Verses such as Hebrews 4:12 are quoted to support the claim that the Bible ispowerful in itself since it is God’s living word. It is sometimes said that the Bible is like a lion – it does not need to be defended but unleashed. It is true that Scripture is powerful to change attitudes and challenge hearts, but if someone will not read or listen seriously to it then it cannot do this work. Apologetics can establish the fact that it is reasonable to take the Bible seriously, so opening people to be prepared to listen. Furthermore, if Scripture only needed to be unleashed to do its work then the task of teaching and preaching would also be unnecessary and evangelism would be reduced to merely passing on texts from the Bible. Scripture consistently describes people as the medium through which God’s truth is communicated to other people. The Bible, and the gospel which it declares, is powerful to change attitudes and lives, but it must be proclaimed, declared and explained for, “How ... can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”(Romans 10:14).

2. God cannot be known by human reason
1 Corinthians 1:21  says that the world did not know God through its wisdom. It is claimed that this means there is no point in trying to get people to accept rational arguments for God. The context of 1Corinthians 1, however, is not the existence of God but the acceptance of the message of the cross. That message cannot be accepted by natural reason alone – it only makes sense because of the special revelation of Scripture and as the Spirit enlightens (1 Corinthians 2:14 (http://biblia.com/bible/esv/1%20Cor%202.14)). Elsewhere, however, Paul writes of evidence in nature pointing to the existence of God and some of His attributes, leaving people without excuse (Romans 2:1215).

3. Natural humanity cannot understand God’s truth
1 Corinthians 2:14 says that “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things what come from the Spirit of God”. It is argued that there is no point, therefore, in trying to explain them to him. Notice, however, that Paul says this man does not accept (Greek dekomai, ’welcome’) them, not that he cannot understand them.

Nonbelievers reject the gospel not because it is illogical and they cannot understand what it means but because they refuse to accept its claims over them. Apologetics seeks to explain the message clearly and rationally so that when the Spirit moves\  the person’s heart they will be ready to accept the truth. In fact, a prayerful approach to apologetics recognises that the work of the Spirit is necessary for people to receive the truth. The apologist does not seek to obstruct or replace the Spirit but to be the Spirit’s agent in bringing people to Christ.

4. Without faith one cannot please God
Hebrews 11:6  clearly states that faith is essential to please God, and some people suggest that this means that reason is displeasing to Him. This claim sets up a false division between faith and reason.

Biblical faith is not blind belief in spite of the evidence, but trust in something that has been commended to the person as trustworthy. The gospel is a message from God that claims that He can be trusted, and apologetics provides evidence that supports that claim. Faith is a response on the part of the individual that accepts the claim (or, rather, accepts the one of whom it speaks) and places confidence in it (or, more correctly, in Him) rather than in self or any alternative.

5. Jesus refused to give signs to evil men
This claim arises from Matthew 12:39 (http://biblia.com/bible/esv/Matt%2012.39), where Jesus says that a wicked generation asks for signs. However, in the next verse Jesus says that one sign, the sign of Jonah, meaning His resurrection, would be given. Jesus presented His miracles as evidence of His identity as the Messiah and Son of God (Matthew 11:45) ; (Mark 2:1011); (John 14:11). On occasions He refused to do miracles for entertainment (Luke23:8) or because of unbelief (Matthew 13:58), but people saw his miracles and realised that they showed He came from God (John 3:2), and the apostles pointed to His miracles (Acts 2:22) and especially His resurrection (Acts 2:32Romans1:41 Corinthians 15:3ff.) as evidence of His identity. The proper lesson to learn from Jesus’ example is not that apologetics is wrong, but that we need discernment to know when to engage in an argument and when not to.

6. Do not answer a fool according to his folly
Proverbs 26:5  is the basis for this claim, but those who make it neglect to read the following verse, which says that we should answer a fool according to his folly. The point of these adjacent and seemingly contradictory proverbs is that we need wisdom to decide when we should give an answer to a “fool” (someone who rejects God’s existence, according to Psalm 14:1 and when we should not.

7. Apologetics is not used in the Bible
If this claim is meant to say that Scripture provides no examples of God providing evidence to support faith then it is simply wrong. Geisler points to the miracles of Moses (Exodus 4:19), Elijah (1 Kings 18) and Jesus (Acts 2:22) as well as the way in which Paul reasoned with people about God’s existence, even using their own philosophical and religious ideas as a starting point (Acts 17:2231).

The Bible, therefore, provides clear precedents for the task of apologetics even if it does not contain the kind of detailed arguments necessary in modern apologetics since it was written in a premodern world primarily to believers. Apologetics today continues patterns found in Scripture.

NEXT: B] Objections from outside the Bible

Source: An Introduction to Christian Apologetics - bethinking.org

[1]F.F. Bruce ’Paul's Apologetic and the Purpose of Acts’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library (1987) 89:2, pp.38990

[3]S.B. Cowan ‘Introduction’ in Five Views on Apologetics (Zondervan, 2000), p.14
[4]Table adapted from http://bible.org/seriespage/speakingtruthloveperspectivesapologetics

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