That title up there? That’s called click-bait—a cutesy way to set you, the reader, up for a bait-and-switch. The title is just absurd enough that those who disagree with it are opening their inboxes to fire off a polemical rebuttal and those who agree with it feel a twinge of hope that they will finally have some ammunition against apologetical fanatics.
Both parties, I’m afraid, will be disappointed.
I am sorry for the bait-and-switch. I’m not sorry for promoting apologetics.
You see, some within Christendom think we shouldn’t do apologetics. Most of us have encountered this either personally or tangentially through articles, books, or debates. This post will highlight a common misconception about the nature of apologetics and how we can, in love, respond to those who sincerely believe that apologetics is something to be avoided. As we examine this objection, perhaps we will learn something about what, exactly, apologetics is in the process—and why Christians should learn to respond to this click-bait title in truth and love.
Let the Lion Out
“I know your mustache! From the papers! You're the detective, Hercules Poirot?” gushes a starry-eyed Mary Debenham.
“Hercule,” the hero sniffs, whiskers twitching. “I do not slay the lions.”
Cases of almost-mistaken identity are not confined to 2017’s remake of Murder on the Orient Express, and Miss Debenham’s quote highlights more than the importance of proper enunciation. It provides some surprising insight into a common apologetical misconception: that apologetics is a waste of time, since all we need to do is “let the lion [the Word of God] out of its cage” and stop blathering on about all this defense of the faith business. One simply opens the door, and poof! “The Lion of the tribe of Judah will soon drive away all his adversaries.” This concept, popularized by the 19th-century preacher Charles Spurgeon, has a few fatal flaws. Let’s examine just one of them.
To some, an apologist is an abusive circus master who keeps her king of the jungle chained away in a cage “for his own protection.” Or, at the very least, apologists appear to be helicopter parents who shield little Leo from everything from scraped knees to harsh criticisms, justifying all of his actions via their own progressive parenting methods. After all, don’t apologists try to rationalize everything in Scripture? Aren’t these the people who think we are saved because we can think our way into heaven or at least participate in our own justification? Haven’t all of their great learning and post-graduate degrees driven them clear out of their faith?
Critics often mimic Miss Debenham. She saw a picture of a mustachioed man and assumed that she knew who he was when she encountered him in the real world. Critics can hear the word “apologetics” and assume that they know what defending the faith is: an egregious misuse of reason worth rejecting.
Inigo Montoya’s reproof seems apt: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Our brothers and sisters-in-arms have fallen prey to what is known as the fallacy of equivocation. (This is, of course, putting the best construction on others’ actions, which charity compels us to do unless and until malicious intent is made known.) We’re not defining our terms in the same way, and thus we are not truly communicating.
When we say that we are “defending” the faith, we do not mean that we are hiding the truth in the backroom and barging forward to fight for its honor. The Greek word apologia (from which apologetics springs) means a legal defense, an explanation. John Warwick Montgomery defines the tripartite nature of apologetics as clarification, positive argumentation, and refutation. We explain what exactly it is we believe, provide evidences that support our claims, and point out the flaws in other worldviews. Apologetics does not seek to analytically prove Christianity or somehow keep Christ out of the picture during the apologetical task. Christ is the apologetical task. 1 Peter 3:15, the so-called apologist’s mandate, is a command and not a suggestion. Apologetics, therefore, isn’t optional for the Christian, just as Christ isn’t optional to apologetics.
Apologetics, therefore, isn’t optional for the Christian, just as Christ isn’t optional to apologetics.
As an aside, one will always find examples of apologetics done poorly. It is easy to disparage something if we choose the worst possible example of it to criticize. If you ask any apologist for an example of less-than-stellar apologetics she will, if she is honest with herself, refer you to her own failed attempts. She will also point you to Christ, since our success in evangelism, apologetics, or anything “spiritual” is never dependent on our efforts. Only the blood of Christ purifies us from all unrighteousness. When the Father looks at us, He does not see our failed attempts at evangelizing or apologizing. He sees Christ Who has clothed us with His own righteousness. On Calvary Christ became our unwillingness, our failures, and our sins. The nails that impaled His sacred flesh to the tree killed our sin. The slave-master (sin) and its wages (eternal death) have been destroyed forever. When Christ arose from the grave, your sins and mine stayed in the stone-cold cage.
After that first Easter morning, Jesus clarified Himself to Thomas and provided him with positive evidence of His bodily resurrection. In one of the most powerful apologetical scenes in the Scriptures (and both testaments are filled with apologetics), the Lord of all Creation guided the trembling hands and mind of His disciple to the Word made Flesh. That is the point of apologetics: not to remove every barrier of unbelief or to swing wildly at every contentious remark, but to point others as quickly as possible to the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world, and to meet intellectual and emotional questions with gentleness and courage.
It is important to ask adherents of the “let the lion out” defense to clarify what they mean by that statement and to encourage them to examine what apologetics truly is. (Did you catch that? “Let the lion out” is a defense—it is, itself, an apologetical statement: a statement that defends a belief by clarifying itself, providing positive evidences, and refuting contrary worldviews.) Ask them questions. Listen to their answers. Gently point out that we all do apologetics—we all give reasons for believing as we do. To quote Dr. Mike Berg, “All Christians do apologetics, and the only question is whether we do it well or poorly.”
The way in which we clarify, provide evidences, or refute claims may change from moment to moment, but the object of our apologetical task—and of our faith—remains the same. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. By His grace, we are called to defend this truth to a bleeding world not by becoming Hercules but by pointing others to the Lion Who lived a perfect life, was slain for our sins, and opened His own cage to rise again so that we might not die eternally—an historical fact that we, by the grace of God, have every reason to unapologetically apologize.