The Disparagement of Apologetics

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; yet do it with gentleness and respect. 1 Peter 3:15

1 Peter 3:15 is a familiar verse to Christians who regularly engage in apologetic ministry. It is the primary verse used as biblical justification for apologetic engagement, and it has long been understood as a valuable and non-negotiable part of the Christian life. However, recently in western Protestantism, there has been a movement to reconsider the classical approach to Christian apologetics. With publications such as John Wilkinson’s No Argument for God (2011) and Myron Penner’s The End of Apologetics (2013), some Christians argue that apologetic argumentation and reasoning is counterproductive for Christian witness. Peter Enns, the Abrams S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University, has also written along these lines, and a couple weeks ago penned a brief post on his Patheos blog articulating his view of apologetics. The article has spawned 259 comments to date, a substantial interaction that demonstrates public interest in this topic and thus its importance.

Enns’ article is short and cryptic, wandering over a number of issues before settling upon his two main arguments: a critique of classical apologetics and his proposal for a new kind of apologetic engagement. Let us consider each of these in turn.

Enns’ First Argument: Priority of Belief over Intellect

Enns’ first argument is a disputation of the presumption of the relationship of faith and reason as historically and classically understood by apologists. Enns believes that western Christian apologetics has assumed that “the intellect is how Christianity works” and that this leads first to intellectual engagement via argumentation, which is then followed by faith. Instead, Enns suggests that belief comes first, and then the intellect and arguments for the faith follow. The central problem with this view is Enns’ overly narrow conception of the intellect consisting mainly of arguments. Yet “intellect” is simply defined as “the faculty of reasoning and understanding objectively.” While this certainly includes arguments (both formal and informal), it also refers to the use of the mind to understand and grasp ideas. When seen in this light, it is clear that a necessary condition of Christian faith is the antecedent use of the intellect in understanding.

In Scripture, faith is believing in the gospel of Jesus Christ. How does belief work? To believe in p one holds that p is true (i.e., it corresponds to reality). Now, a person might misunderstand what p is and still believe that it is true. Yet in either case, there must be some self-understanding of what p is or is thought to be, and a belief about the nature of reality such that p is considered to correspond to it. How can any of this happen without the use of the mind and the intellect? Consider a classic gospel passage, Romans 10:9-10: “Because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” In the ancient world, the “heart” was considered to be the seat of the person where cognition, will, emotion, and personality all converged. Our modern term “mind” is probably the closest approximation to the ancient understanding of the “heart” (which means all modern dichotomies between the head as the “mind” and the heart as “feelings/passions” are false). Paul here is explicitly saying that faith involves confessing and believing the gospel with one’s mouth and mind, both of which require the function of the intellect to understand that Jesus is Lord, that God raised him from the dead, and that this has purchased our salvation. As Dallas Willard once said, “We fail to understand that, in the very nature of the human mind, emotion does not reliably generate belief or faith, if it generates it at all…It is understanding, insight, that generates belief. In vain do we try to change peoples’ heart or character by ‘moving’ them to do thing in ways that bypass their understanding.” [1] So it is in vain that Enns disparages the intellect’s central role in faith.

Belief does not come about though a Holy Spirit lightning strike, via hypnosis, through altered states of consciousness, or out-of-body experiences. Instead, the Spirit always works with and through the mind to help a person comprehend the message of the gospel — of their own sinfulness and need of a savior, and of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection — so that they can believe. Time and again in the New Testament we see that those who believe do so after being presented the truth about Jesus and believing the beautiful and redemptive gospel message. In addition, arguments in defense of Christianity and against competing worldviews are often successful in bringing persons to Christ. One thinks of Paul’s employment of reasoning and persuasion in the midst of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers at the Athenian Areopagus in Acts 17, which resulted in many believing (v. 34). Contemporary examples would be C. S. Lewis who was “argued into the faith,” or the former Muslim Nabeel Qureshi who left Islam and accepted Christ only after extensive apologetic discussion and engagement with his friend David (see Nabeel’s book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus). In short, belief requires the mind; and one cannot come to faith without first engaging the intellect. Consequently, Enns has it backwards.

Finally, Enns seems to have a very limited view of classical apologetics: that it consists of nothing but arguments to convince people that Christianity is true so that they will believe. Yet the power and importance of apologetics goes far beyond this. Many current Christians who struggle with penetrating questions about the Bible’s historicity and reliability, the character of God in the face of evil, or the extent to which Christians should struggle with sin after salvation can be aided, encouraged, and strengthened in their faith through apologetic arguments and reasoning. This is something that takes place consequently to initial faith, and is often critical to heading off doubts that could lead to apostasy. Thus apologetics has value for believer and unbeliever alike, as faith is not a one-and-done deal, but a lifetime of being conformed into Christ’s own image (Rom. 8:29).

Enns’ Second Argument: A “Living Apologetic”

Enns’ second argument revolves around his proposal for a different kind of apologetic approach, what I will call a “living apologetic” for short. By this I mean Enns’ idea that apologetics shouldn’t be about having a “better intellectual system” or making and winning arguments, but living positively for others in a way that is loving, serving, self-sacrificial, and to the benefit of communities. Enns believes this apologetic has immediate payoff in that the world will see that Christians are not hypocritical and that following Christ daily in our speech and behavior is indeed a better way to live. It is not until we do this that Christians have earned the right to consider making intellectual arguments in favor of theism.

There is much to commend in Enns’ suggestions about Christian living and praxis. I do not dispute that Christians should seek to obey the teachings of Christ and emulate his example by loving God, loving their neighbors, and seeking to do good. Yet there are a number of problems with this approach as it pertains to apologetics. I will mention four.

First, what does the Bible actually say about apologetics? Enns appeals to 1 Peter 3:15 in order to refute an apologetic approach that seeks to “out-debate those who disagree with you,” in favor of giving a “gentle account for what drives you.” However, 1 Peter 3:15 says nothing favorable or unfavorable about “out-debating”; instead it commands that we always be prepared to give an apologia — a defense — for the reason for the hope that is within us. What is an apologia? This word and its cognate verb only appear in the New Testament eighteen times, but it is clear what they mean. The authoritative New Testament lexicon (BDAG) defines this lexeme as “to speak in one’s own defense against charges presumed to be false” (pp. 116-117; for more details, see the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis, 2nd ed., edited by Moisés Silva, 1:361-363). This is clearly seen in Paul’s numerous defenses of his ministry before the Jews in Jerusalem (Acts 22:1), before Felix in Caesarea (Acts 24:10), before Festus in Jerusalem (Acts 25:8, 16), and finally before Agrippa (Acts 26:1-2). Paul also speaks about defending the gospel (Phil. 1:7, 16) and defending his work against those who would examine him (1 Cor. 9:3). Finally both Jesus and Paul say that apologia is the work of the Spirit and a sign of godliness (Lk. 12:11-12; 2 Cor. 7:10-11). Clearly, then, giving a defense includes argument, reasoning, persuasion, debate, and even out-debating one’s opponents. Yet this does not mean one has to be argumentative or difficult; as Peter says, give your defense with gentleness and respect. The purpose is to make the truth known, to clear one’s name of wrongful accusation, and to present the gospel as veracious and pertinent for all of life.

The second problem with Enns’ apologetic proposal is that, much like Myron Penner in The End of Apologetics, Enns defines apologetics in such a way as to define it out of existence. As I just described, etymologically and theologically apologia requires that there be some sort of defense or reply in the face of objections or accusations, whether it be a court setting or in personal correspondence. But by redefining apologia to be essentially Christian witness and living, the apology (i.e., reasoned argument) of apologetics is eliminated. What, then, is the difference between apologetics and evangelism, or apologetics and Christian praxis? None that I can see. This is a clever way to conceptually remove any such distinctions, and thus covertly claim that apologetics isn’t really needed after all. However, such redefinitions can only work by distorting or ignoring the biblical texts that teach about apologetics.

Third, Enns’ apologetic looks primarily to the example of Jesus as direction for apologetic living and witness. The problem is that Jesus himself (not to mention Peter, Paul, or John) engaged in the very kind of apologetics that Enns discourages! Jesus was masterful at debates and in turning the tide on his opponents who were continually looking for ways to trip him up so they could accuse him. It is not difficult to study Jesus’ discourses and interactions with the Jewish religious leaders to uncover his philosophical acumen: he was relentlessly rational, escaping the horns of the dilemma time and again, appealing to evidence to win arguments, employing a fortiori and reductio ad absurdum argument forms, and making use of the laws of logic. In short, Jesus was a philosopher, a metaphysician, a logician, and an ethicist. [2] Again, listen to Willard:

We need to understand that Jesus is a thinker, that this is not a dirty word but an essential work, and that his other attributes do not preclude thought, but only insure that he is certainly the greatest thinker of the human race: “the most intelligent person who ever lived on earth.” He constantly uses the power of logical insight to enable people to come to the truth about themselves and about God from the inside of their own heart and mind. [3]

Thus, Enns refutes himself: he wants us to live as Christ lived — or as Enns puts it “showing that this Jesus stuff works” — but once we have a correct understanding of Jesus’ use of reason, argument, debate, and persuasion, following Christ will result in using the very apologetic method and engagement that Enns disparages! This simply demonstrates that Enns is not familiar with Jesus’ use of apologetics in his earthly ministry.

Fourth and finally, Enns believes that his “living apologetic” is superior because of its immediate payoff. While leading a Christlike life can certainly have immediate benefit, both for the Christian and for those he or she is serving, Enns’ attempt to contrast the failure of classical apologetics with his approach falls flat. Enns seems completely unaware that in the last fifty years there has been a veritable renaissance in Christian philosophy and apologetics in the Anglosphere. This revolution has used the apologetic approach Enns dislikes to great fruitfulness and reward. The apologetic ministries of Bill Craig at Reasonable Faith, Greg Koukl at Stand to Reason, of Paul Copan and J.P. Moreland, and of organizations like Apologetics315 and the U.K’s Unbelievable on Premier Christian Radio have literally brought hundreds, if not thousands, of people to saving faith and have strengthened the Christian walk of many thousands more. Christian apologetics has had an immediate and much needed impact on reviving western culture and society plagued by materialism and religious pluralism, and Enns seems oblivious to this. His disparagement of apologetics is disparagement of the tremendous work for God’s kingdom that many apologetic ministries and individuals have accomplished by God’s grace.

In addition, the classical apologetic approach of giving a reasoned defense of Christianity is in no way inimical to practicing a living apologetic. Take the example of Nabeel Qureshi again. In his testimony, Nabeel relates how he was somewhat of a Muslim outcast in American Christianized society. People were kind to him, but few showed they truly cared or loved him unconditionally — that is, until he befriended David Wood. David cared enough about Nabeel to fellowship with his family, spend long hours in conversation, and stick with their friendship even when things were strained. As Nabeel puts it, “Effective evangelism requires relationship. There are very few exceptions.” [4] And yet, as mentioned above, David did not shy away from engaging Nabeel with apologetic arguments for Christianity and against Islam. It was precisely the conjoining of classical apologetics with enduring friendship that the Holy Spirit used to bring Nabeel to Christ. There is nothing whatsoever about the classical apologetic approach that precludes relational evangelism. Enns’ own apologetic must rely upon a false dichotomy between these if it is to make any sense or gain any traction at all.

Conclusion

It is clear that Enns’ approach to apologetics is deficient on multiple levels. It suffers from philosophical errors (false dichotomies, straw men arguments, misunderstanding of intellect), it is unbiblical and lacks theological justification, it demonstrates a shallow understanding of the important impact apologetic ministry is currently having, and quite frankly, it is lazy. It doesn’t matter whether one thinks apologetic engagement is just not for them; being able to give a reasoned defense for the gospel and the hope within is commanded of us, and is just as important as loving God and serving our neighbors. In fact, apologetic engagement is one vital way we can demonstrate our love for God and his Word, and minister to those in need around us. If my response here is correct, then no one should follow Enns’ advice or believe what he says about apologetics. Instead of providing a hopeful alternative apologetic, Enns has abdicated apologetic engagement altogether. His approach disparages apologetics and those who engage in apologetic ministry, and is counterproductive to Christianity’s cultural appeal, effective witness, and the saving of lost souls. Let us follow the apologetic example set by Jesus and Paul, not Peter Enns.

Notes

[1] Dallas Willard, “Jesus the Logician,” Christian Scholars Review 28, no. 4 (1999): 613.

[2] For further reading, see Willard’s article above and Douglas Groothuis, On Jesus (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003).

[3] “Jesus the Logician,” 610.

[4] Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 120.

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