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Apologetics ‘no longer an option’

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Many of the brightest minds in Christian apologetics and philosophy gathered in New Orleans with a common goal — teaching believers how to defend the Christian faith.

The seventh annual Evangelical Philosophical Society’s Apologetics Conference drew a who’s who lineup of Christian thinkers skilled in presenting the case for Christianity to a skeptical world. The Nov. 19-21 sessions at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary featured such scholars as Gary Habermas of Liberty University, Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary, Doug Geivett of Talbot School of Theology, James Walker of Watchman Fellowship and others — 21 speakers in all.

The apologetics conference is held in conjunction with the annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society and Evangelical Philosophical Society. This year’s ETS/EPS meetings were held in New Orleans Nov. 18-20.

“We have to know why we believe what we believe,” said J.P. Moreland, distinguished professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in Mirada, Calif., in opening the conference with a discussion of why Christian knowledge matters.

“And we have to be able to defend our faith in an increasingly secular culture,” Moreland said. “It is no longer an option; it has now become an obligation, given the situation we’re in.”

Moreland said three worldviews now dominate Western culture: scientific naturalism, postmodernism and Christianity, each with a different understanding of knowledge.

Those who hold to scientific naturalism, which Moreland described as the most prevalent worldview today, believe that knowledge of reality comes only from science; for something to be known, it must be proven empirically.

Postmoderns believe that truth is relative to individual cultures, Moreland said. They believe that something can be “true” for one culture but not for another.

The third worldview is Christianity; while scientific naturalism and postmodernism have gained wide acceptance, Moreland said the Christian worldview has not been completely marginalized. It remains “a vibrant worldview in this culture and it is still having an impact throughout society,” he said.

Some proponents of scientific naturalism and postmodernism deny any possibility that Christianity might be true. Still others argue that even if Christianity is true, it cannot be known to be true. Moreland argued that not only is Christianity true, but its truthfulness can also be known.

Moreland said that the words “know” and “believe” carry different authority, with people in Western culture being accorded authority based on knowledge rather than belief.

“It is very, very important for you and for me to recapture this idea that there is knowledge of God, there is knowledge of the afterlife … that Jesus Christ has risen from dead.”

While Christianity is a true belief backed by adequate reasons, Moreland said some Christians focus more on faith — often blind faith — than on knowledge. Warning against this view, Moreland said faith is “trusting what we know to be true” and is based on knowledge, “not a substitute for it.”

Timothy McGrew, professor of philosophy at Western Michigan University, encouraged Christians to read works of early apologists such as William Paley, Richard Whately and Thomas Cooper.

McGrew noted that Richard Dawkins and other vocal atheists are borrowing centuries-old arguments from atheists and freethinkers of the past. Because they refuted the same arguments years ago, the ideas of Paley, Whately and Cooper are helpful in dismantling the arguments of current atheists, McGrew said.

McGrew presented a brief overview of the three apologists’ major works, adding that many works by these and other apologists are available through the Library of Historical Apologetics website (www.historicalapologetics.org).

The apologetics conference featured presentations by three NOBTS faculty members — Michael Edens, professor of theology and Islamic studies; Steve Lemke, provost and professor of philosophy and ethics; and Robert Stewart, associate professor of philosophy and theology. Mike Licona, apologetics coordinator for the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, also led a breakout session during the conference.

Conference organizers developed a youth track to help younger believers develop apologetics skills.

Sean McDowell, a high school teacher, trained apologist and son of noted apologist Josh McDowell, was the featured speaker for the opening session of the youth track, playing the role of an atheist and challenging members of the audience to respond to his arguments against Christianity. Several youth and children participated in the discussion, offering arguments for Christianity. At the end of his presentation, McDowell said he started the conference in this manner to illustrate the sophistication of many atheistic arguments and to encourage youth and youth workers to develop skills to defend their faith.

Prior to the apologetics conference, organizers also hosted local pastors for a luncheon meeting centering on the importance of apologetics training in the local church, with New Orleans Seminary President Chuck Kelley and Tony Merida, teaching pastor at Temple Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Miss., as featured speakers and J.P. Moreland in a question-and answer-session.

“The most important apologist in America is the pastor a local church,” Kelley told the pastors and church leaders.

The local church, from mega-churches to small rural congregations, must be the “cradle” of defenders of the faith, Kelley said. “Everything that happens in the Kingdom of God happens in, around, through and for the benefit of, the local church.”

Merida, who serves as a ministry-based faculty member at NOBTS in addition to his work at Temple Baptist, outlined how apologetics can look in a local church setting.

At Temple, Merida said, a church that draws 3,000 to Sunday worship, “a good number” are not prepared to defend the faith. “But we are working toward that, working very hard at equipping them and training them.” Apologetics, he said, should be part of every aspect of discipleship.

In addition to the EPS Apologetics Conference, two other apologetics events are slated at New Orleans Seminary in the coming months.

“Confronting the Culture,” sponsored by the seminary’s Institute for Christian Apologetics, Jan. 3-8, is an apologetics training event open to ministers, lay leaders and students. Seminary credit is available. For more information, visit www.nobtsapologetics.com.

NOBTS’ annual Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum, Feb. 26-27, will center on the theme “The Message of Jesus: What Did He Really Teach?” For more information, visit www.greer-heard.com.
Gary D. Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. NOBTS writer Paul F. South contributed to this article.