Apologetics is intellectual missionary work that provides reasons for belief. But Luther called reason a whore. Does this mean that apologetics is one missional avenue that faithful Christians shouldn’t trod? Instead of answering this question theoretically, perhaps it will be easier to illustrate the problem of understanding God through our human speculation by considering the legend of St. George and the Dragon. The symbolic landscape of this takes us back to the ancient and dark recesses of human imagination. St. George’s Day is April 23; the feast celebrates a martyr from late third century Cappadocia, part of Turkey today. The historical George was a faithful guy. But how did he become the patron saint of so many nations? Why do so many cultures celebrate his feast day? Why is the famous motif of George slaying a dragon found throughout Europe and Asia? I suggest it is because the legend of his victory over the dragon symbolizes Christ’s defeat of the old logic, the sort of religious reasoning that leads to false stairways to heaven at best and human sacrifice at worst.
There’s no reason to believe there is any historical basis to the legend of George rescuing a maiden from the jaws of a ferocious beast. And yet, this story—to the extent that George is a type or symbol of Christ—is the truest and most fundamental image of God’s redemption of humanity. You see, anthropologists and archaeologists have discovered something horrific: the majority of ancient human societies practiced human sacrifice. While the practice tended to die down after what has been called the “Axial Age” (800-200 BC), the haunting logic of the system never left our collective dreams. We see traces of it in Judges 11 and in the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.
The old logic went like this: looking at the world around us, God’s (or the gods’) disposition towards us is clear. He, or they, are really, really pissed off. Sure, there are times of flourishing and harvest. But plague, flooding, drought, famine, and storms harass our species relentlessly. Sometimes, we can appease the heavens through animal sacrifice. But at other times our sins or the deities are so severe that a stronger remedy is needed: the blood of those dearest to us.
Whether our ancestors were throwing virgins into the fire or tying them up in the wilderness to be devoured, the logic was the same: sacrifice something we love and an angry deity will be appeased. This is the way of artificial religion; our minds invent ways to achieve religious goals. And as much as it breaks our hearts, we perform unthinkable evil thinking we are doing religious good.
Enter George, who says: “No. Wait a minute. Don’t let your maidens suffer in this way. Let me take care of the problem by defeating the beast once and for all.” This was something common men or women from Wales to Syria could get behind. Death to the old logic! Three cheers for George! Down with the old logic. Down with the dragon.
You might think it strange that I link a barbaric, pre-Enlightenment practice with reason. But this is exactly the sort of reason Luther was worried about. In this fallen world, we are confused. Evil and death are all around and consume the just and the unjust alike. With Job, we sit in sackcloth and ashes and wonder why the universe seems to be urinating on us. Our friends, like Job’s friends, try to apply the old logic. They seek a cheap comfort in knowing why things have gone wrong and how we can fix them through our own efforts.
Enter Jesus. Jesus says, “No. Wait a minute. Don’t suffer in this way by applying faulty human reason to the problem. Let me defeat sin, death and the devil once and for all. Then you’ll not need to spiritually torture yourself, thinking that will appease the Father. I’m putting an end to the old religious logic by overturning the whole old system.” Christians celebrate. Death to the old logic! Three cheers for Jesus! Let’s not let reason lead us astray again. In this, we are right to refuse to return to the old logic that failed to understand that God Himself would provide our sacrifice (Genesis 22:8, 13-14).
So why would we bother with the rational tools of apologetics? Because with apologetics, we are working with a different kind of reason. Luther appreciated the empirical philosophical tradition of William of Ockham (1287-1347). He rejected the idea that pure reason could tell us anything certain about the concrete world in which we live. He rejected the idea that we could understand God on our own rational terms and insisted that to understand the divine, we needed a word from the outside, God’s self-revelation. (Theologically he was also a semi-Pelagian but that’s another issue).
Apologetics, when it works from the resources of accessible human knowledge in the form of historical investigation and critical thinking—helps us figure out which supposed revelation to trust (if any).
If you are academically inclined, you can learn more about this in David Andersen’s book.
Apologetics, properly understood, is not about using reason to understand God or judge the doctrines of Scripture, it is about following an empirical, evidential trail to the foot of the cross, where God turns the assumptions of human reason upside down. Incidentally, since God gave us intelligence, we can also use that to understand His written revelation. The Word we discover overturns all human expectations. Just as with the legend of St. George, we discover that the old logic has been overcome. A new logic has dawned; and it’s happy ending is better than any legend ever told, since the dawn of time.