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FIRST-PERSON: Why the church needs apologetics


EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–Now and then apologetics (argumentation for defense of the faith) has a direct impact on lost people, leading them toward conversion, or at least away from hostility. For instance, perennial skeptic Antony Flew now expresses a form of theism, in part because of the argument from intelligent design in nature. (See the interview at www.biola.edu/antonyflew/.)

But it’s been my experience that the will is more often the problem than the intellect. People don’t want a Lord; they don’t want someone interfering with their agendas. Rather than admit this (to themselves or others), they toss out arguments to lend their indifference or hostility to God an air of sophistication.

Still, apologetics is an important handmaiden of evangelism. It can strip away smugness, loosen up hardened soil, embarrass treasured criticisms, and sow disarray in a pagan worldview. Of course, the critic will seldom admit on the spot that you’ve scored points, but his private reflections may be a different story.

What if they don’t listen? Is apologetics worth the effort anyway? I think so. There are benefits for the church just the same:

— We can savor, cultivate and honor rationality, just as we do physicality.

Feeling and irrationality are highly prized in this postmodern age. In an Emerging Church favorite book, “Blue Like Jazz,” Donald Miller says things like, “My dislike for institutions is mostly a feeling, though, not something that can be explained … I don’t have to like them either. It’s my right,” and “There are many ideas within Christian spirituality that contradict the facts of reality as I understand them.” And he’s not embarrassed to talk this way.

Of course, Pascal says, “The heart has its reasons.” Of course, John 3:8 says the Holy Spirit moves mysteriously, like the wind. But this does not warrant contempt for reason, any more than esteem for spiritual matters means contempt for the body. God gave us our minds, and we should be good stewards of them. One way is to read and construct good arguments.

— It cultivates dialogical prowess for the public square.

Evangelicals need more practice in responsible disputation. Consider this comparison: For every Cal Thomas and Richard Land, you have a dozen (current or lapsed) Roman Catholic commentators or columnists, such as Sean Hannity, Chris Matthews, Pat Buchanan, Bill Bennett, Bill Buckley, Bill O’Reilly, Andrew Sullivan, John McLaughlin, Anna Quindlen, Phyllis Schlafly, Michelle Malkin, Linda Chavez, Peggy Noonan, Mark Shields, Paul Begalla, Laura Ingraham and Robert Novak. And we may be on the brink of a Catholic majority on the Supreme Court, with justices Thomas, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia and Alito. Also, note the many front-line Jewish commentators, such as William Kristol, David Horowitz, Michael Medved, Mona Charen, David Frum and Al Franken). We Evangelicals seem to have some cultural and educational gaps to fill.

— It helps keep the warrior spirit alive.

Back to “Blue Like Jazz.” The “war metaphor” is a big turnoff to Miller. Well, certainly it’s not the only good one, but you can’t marginalize such expressions as “the whole armor of God” and “fight the good fight,” without doing serious damage to the Christian’s situation and calling. In our rush to become “Christlike” in the tender sense, we forget that Christ was often edgy and confrontational. Apologetics helps keep that aspect of “Christlikeness” alive.

— It keeps us honest — we need to hear our critics.

I have a copy of an 1860 book, published in Louisville, entitled “A Bible Defense of Slavery.” It reminds me of how a group of believers can cling to something really stupid and wrong for years and years. Insularity is treacherous. We need to listen to those who gainsay us. It can have a hygienic effect, helping us to sort out the defensible from the indefensible.

— It encourages the troops who have been beaten down.

University students and regular consumers of the mainstream media can be demoralized by the incessant defamation of the faith and biblical standards. The redeemed won’t lose their salvation in this barrage, but they can be demoralized. Insightful apologetics can help restore their confidence and refresh them for engagement with the world of hostile ideas.

— It is good pre-evangelism — for the evangelizer as well as the evangelized.

Listening is important. Like Paul, we can pick up a pagan poem to quote on Mars Hill. When we adopt an apologetics mindset, we turn on our radar for good material. We Christians are polymaths, since everything connects to God. We read voraciously. We build our database. We do our homework.

— It helps us become culturally literate.

From “Pensees” to “Mere Christianity,” from Aquinas’ Five Ways, to Anselm’s “being than which no greater can be conceived,” to Pascal’s “Wager,” to Paley’s watch found in a field, Christian apologetics is historically and culturally significant to believer and non-believer alike. Great literature, great concepts, great arguments.

— It helps us clarify our own language.

By reading in apologetics, we learn to distinguish the atemporal from the everlasting, the fully human from the merely human, and the defeatable from the defeasible. These and a hundred other distinctions can help us sort things out.

— It exposes the opposition as a Wizard of Oz.

If you want to gain confidence in the sweet reasonableness of Christianity, read Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am not a Christian.” He may have won a Nobel Prize, but his case against the faith was full of schoolboy criticisms, easily answered. The opponent is not really so impressive after all.

— It’s fun, and a form of wholesome recreation and entertainment.

No kidding, you ought to see budding philosophers work out on iterations of the ontological, Kalam or anthropic arguments. Who needs video games?

Look, Dante was right when he called history a “Divine Comedy.” There are a lot of vexatious aspects to this world, just as there was a lot of stress in an episode of “I Love Lucy.” But in the end, all was happy. You know, “Oh, Ricky!” “O, Lucy” (big hug). Similarly, the world’s story turns out well. Truth will prevail. Error will tumble. If the world won’t listen to reason, we can listen to it in house, and have the time of our lives. Church-league basketball, church-league apologetics. Game on!
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Mark Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church and distinguished professor of apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Reprinted from the Illinois Baptist newsjournal, online at www.ibsa.org/illinoisbaptist.

    About the Author

  • Mark Coppenger