What is Apologetics?

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Kyle G. Jones gives a broad primer on what apologetics is, what it hopes to accomplish, and its limitations.

What is Apologetics?

Christians as far back as the Apostles, to the Church Fathers, to the Medieval and Reformation scholars—and up to today’s modern-day sinner/saints have practiced apologetics. But what is it? Does Scripture have anything to say about it? What’s its purpose? Does it have limits? How is it practiced in today’s world? Let’s answer these in brief below.

The Definition and Importance of Apologetics

The word apologetics comes from the Greek word apologia meaning to make a defense. Christian apologetics deals with answering the question: Is Christianity and the Bible, its authoritative text, true?

Here, Mark Mattes reminds us of an important distinction. “Apologetics means defending your faith. [Not] defending God. God does not need your defense.” Instead, apologetics calls us to think about faith in light of those who question if it is true.

But is this important? Is apologetics even needed today? Yes. At one time or another we wonder why evil exists in the word, if suffering has a purpose, or life have meaning. Some people are certain there is no God. But for others, who are not so sure, they wonder if we can know who or what that god is? Lots of people and religions offer answers to these questions. But how do we know if their answers are true?

Apologetics calls us to think about faith in light of those who question if it is true.

Apologetics can offer meaningful answers to these and other big questions of life. It can also help sort out the truth between competing answers to these questions.

An Objection and Scriptural Support

An objection to apologetics says, “You can’t persuade or argue anyone into the Christian faith; only the Holy Spirit can give faith.” This is true. But the one defending the Christian faith is not trying to reason anyone into the faith. We’ll talk more about this later, but before we do, let’s look at the Scriptural basis for apologetics.

The primary passage on apologetics is 1 Peter 3:15. “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Peter urges us to be ready to share our reasons, with evidence, for believing in Jesus. This is also not a cute suggestion, but an imperative to all believers.

Some other passages that show us the how and why of apologetics include John 20:30-31, Acts 17:16-34, and Acts 26:1-29.

The Purpose and Limitations

The purpose of apologetics is to share the message of the gospel of Jesus with people. That they are freely forgiven on account of his death and resurrection. As Valerie Thur put it, “Our focus in doing apologetics [is]: taking the questioner to the cross of Christ and the empty tomb and bringing [them] face-to-face with” Jesus. Christian apologetics does this by trying to clear away any intellectual obstacles people have. In this way apologetics aids in evangelism, in the proclamation of the gospel. For the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).

Apologetics has its limitations too 

Apologetics is not a tool we use to win arguments or to silence people seeking the truth. Mattes reminds us, “As defenders of the faith, we need humility.”

It is not something we use to “save” people, that’s the Holy Spirit’s job. Angus Menuge writes, “We aren’t called to be successful. We are called to be faithful” in proclaiming the gospel.

We use apologetics to help us proclaim the gospel, by which the Holy Spirit calls people to believe, forgives their sins, and saves them. John Warwick Montgomery sums it best. “Our object is to get the unbeliever to the cross of Christ, not to insist that he or she accept the best theological solution to every contested issue—particularly when that issue is not one on which his or her personal salvation depends.”

We use apologetics to help us proclaim the gospel, by which the Holy Spirit calls people to believe, forgives their sins, and saves them.

Two Approaches

There are two main approaches or ways of practicing apologetics. One is the presuppositional approach. The other is the evidential/historical approach.

The presuppositional approach begins by assuming (or presupposing) certain Christian beliefs to be true (like God’s existence or that the Bible is true). Then, using this approach, apologists try to prove that all the parts of their belief system (Christianity in this case) are true.

The presuppositional approach is primarily negative in its approach. It seeks to show the truth of Christianity mainly by deconstructing non-Christian points of view, leaving Christianity the most plausible. It asks non-believers to hit pause on their unbelief and see the world through the Christian perspective, and in so doing, then they will see the truth of Christianity.

This approach has weaknesses. One, just because a set of beliefs is internally consistent does not mean it aligns with reality or is God’s word. Conspiracy theories are true within themselves, but do not align with reality. Two, proving non-Christian belief systems to be untrue does not make Christianity true by default. Additionally, one cannot knock down the world’s countless belief systems and their infinite varieties. That task never ends.

The evidential/historical approach begins by presenting historical evidence for the truth of Christianity (hence the name). It doesn’t ask the non-believer to believe in Jesus, only to consider the historical evidence for Jesus’s actions and claims, namely the gospels.

This approach is primarily positive in manner. The evidential/historical method seeks to show the truth of Christianity primarily by demonstrating that the resurrection was a factual, historical event.

Whereas the presuppositional approach starts inward and attempts to show that Christianity is true primarily through reason and intellect alone, the evidential/historical approach starts outside a person. It attempts to show the truth of Christianity through objective historical evidence anyone can investigate.

Peter, Paul, and other apostles primarily used this approach. A good example is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In chapter 15, he writes, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (verses 3-8).

Scripture both demonstrates to us and directs us to make a reasoned defense of the Christian faith.

Scripture both demonstrates to us and directs us to make a reasoned defense of the Christian faith. The evidential/historical approach to apologetics provides a solid foundation from which to do this. It allows us to answer questions and converse on common ground, a shared reality, one in which Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. When we recognize its purpose and limitations, apologetics helps us to clearly proclaim the gospel as Jesus exhorted us to do in Matthew 28:19-20, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”