Apologia. Apologetic(s). The word and its derivatives appear nineteen times in the New Testament. It means literally “to take oneself off a charge” or “to defend oneself.” In nearly every instance in the New Testament it refers to a Christian’s response to legal prosecution, persecution or inquiry. For this reason the word is rendered variously as answer, defense, excuse or explanation. It was also in this narrow and technical sense that the early church fathers wrote many “Apologies” for Christianity against the slander of unbelievers, persecution and legal oppression.
The concept and practice of apologetics slowly evolved, however, into a much broader application. In the fourth century, ‘for example. Augustine defended Christianity against pagan accusations concerning Rome’s demise. In the eleventh century Anselm attempted to explain the irrationality of unbelief and also to vindicate God’s purpose in the incarnation. In the centuries thereafter, great intellects such as Aquinas, Butler, Locke, Hodge, Orr, and C.S. Lewis all sought in various ways to stem the tide of unbelief and to illustrate the reasonableness of Christianity. Today we still face intellectual challenges that are very grave What are these “charges” that confront contemporary Christianity?
CHARGES AGAINST CHRISTIANITY
First, for many. Christianity seems irrelevant. It is not germane for daily life. It is not “politically correct.” It is not intellectually tenable. It is, in short, perceived as inherently unreasonable, divisive, obscurant and toxic. (In this day and age, who needs God anyway?) Ben Meyer wrote recently: “For the heritage of Christian belief affirms as indispensable what the heritage of modern culture excludes as impossible.”1 The “modern Christian dilemma” is the “incompatibility between intellectual honesty and traditional Christian belief.”2 Or, as Gresham Machen proclaimed earlier in this century: “False ideas are the greatest obstacle to the reception of the gospel.”3 Indeed, “false ideas” are a great hindrance in evangelism. As a result, in our secular, materialistic world, Christianity no longer compels. It simply does not “make sense” anymore.
Perhaps this explains why the majority of converts in the West are young people and why so many abdicate their faith after entering college. Perhaps this explains as well why Christians, particularly evangelicals, have so little influence in academia and other places of power. It is ironic, therefore, that some in the economically devastated, former Communist East appeal to us, saying: “… the greatest problem is not that we don’t have enough sausages. Far worse, we don’t have enough ideas. We don’t know what to think. The ground has been pulled out from under us” (italics mine). It is unfortunate that in these prosperous economic times in America, the “greatest problem” sometimes still appears to us to be the dearth of “sausages” and not ideas. As Christians, the intellectual ground has been “pulled out from under us” as well, but many do not seem to realize this or care.
Secondly, Christianity is viewed by many as merely one variety of generic religion. For various reasons, religion today in general is quite amorphous and pluralistic. Devotees approach the sacred realm as a sort of experiential smorgasbord. In such a syncretistic milieu, beliefs are mixed and matched according to fad, fashion and psychic need. Tolerance and relativism are creedal assumptions. Christianity is no longer viewed as justifiably unique or exclusive. Cynics charge: Christianity is merely another, particularly noxious “weed” in the “garden of god.”
What, then, is the reason for this lamentable perception of our faith? Why is Christianity perceived as irrelevant? Why is it viewed by many as merely one variety of generic religion? One explanation is that. sadly, evangelical Christianity itself, as a reluctant and imperfect cultural mirror, suffers from a virile subjectivism, docile anti-intellectualism, and syncretistic tendency which often causes it to appear irrelevant and implausible. We see this malaise reflected in the church where New Age ideas are infringing on the doctrine of God, Christology, and spiritual guidance. We see it in deviations from the Biblical doctrine of man. There is, for example, an overemphasis on self-image, victimization and unbiblical (psychologistic) counseling. We see it also in the uncritical acquiescence to consumerism and the passive, undiscriminating acceptance of much that the media serves up. We see it in the quality of preaching. There is too little scholarship and too much emphasis on application, on addressing faddish “felt needs” rather than the ever present “unfelt needs” for insight and instruction. In other words, preaching today often neglects the “indicative” of Scripture while stressing the “imperative,” with the result that sermons do not often challenge our minds or our cherished cultural assumptions. We see it also in the burgeoning “feel good” small-group movement, which unfortunately does “little to increase the Biblical knowledge of their members… [and where] many of the groups encourage faith to be subjective and pragmatic.”4 Finally, we witness in particular an anti-intellectualism manifested in evangelism training. The emphasis today is on one-on-one, “life-style” evangelism. But, where is the content? How are we to answer the objections we encounter? In short, where is our apologetic (I Pet. 3:15, Phil. 1:7)?
Could it be that we have forgotten how to love God with our minds? We have a religion of the heart. but have we stopped thinking? In fact, it seems we are afraid of thinking, of being “intellectual.” Have we forgotten that since the advent of the New Testament, our “Holy War” is fought now with prayer and persuasion? Have we forgotten that Paul debated with his opponents in order to confute and convert them? Have we forgotten that many of our greatest church leaders throughout Christian history were highly educated? Is it any coincidence that the Reformation and many revivals resulted from the impact of new (Biblically informed) ideas upon the intelligentsia?
Finally, how can this sad situation be remedied? How can we overcome the many “false ideas” today which hinder our evangelism, plague our churches, and stunt our apologetics? How can we forsake anti-intellectualism? How can we regain the cognitive “high ground”? One way is to foster Christian scholarship in order to purge false ideas from the church, and to reassert our intellectual credibility. For, if our weapons truly are prayer and persuasion, then our battlefields are not only the prayer meeting, but also evangelism, apologetics and education. We must devote ourselves anew to the effort to eradicate the “incompatibility between intellectual honesty and traditional Christian belief” and “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (II Cor. 10:5). For this reason we should invest much more money in our future leaders, their ideas, and Christian educational institutions Christian elementary and secondary schools languish for lack of resources Christian colleges and seminaries often are underfunded. As for advanced study at the masters or doctoral level. there is precious little scholarship money, especially for the study of apologetics. This ought not to be. We should be seeking and cultivating the next Jonathan Edwards, Francis Schaeffer, C.S. Lewis and Cornelius Van Til.
Another way to remedy the situation is to recapture the apologetic and eclectic thrust of the Mission Dei. We must recognize that our apologetic is associated with and vitalized by God’s indictment, or apologetic. against humanity (Rom. 1:18) According to Romans 1:20 mankind is “without an apologetic” (anapologetos). Mankind is, in fact, “without an excuse” for its impiety, given the revelation of God within man and nature (Rom. 1:19, 20). For this reason, then, we should view our apologetic, as did Paul, not merely as the defense of the faith, but as part and parcel of God’s polemic, or offensive, against all forms of idolatry (Rom. 1:25; I Thes. 1:9, 10),
A third way is to rediscover the transcendental and presuppositional nature of the Biblical apologetic as exemplified in the work of Cornelius Van Til, protege of Machen and late professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Van Til sought to reconstruct and reform apologetics and epistemology in light of the Biblical notions of the creator-creature distinction, common grace and the noetic effects of sin. Put simply, Van Til asked and answered these three questions: What kind of reasoning is fitting for a creature? What kind of reasoning is typical of a sinner? What kind of method is proper in apologetics?
Obviously this essay is itself an apologia. It is an apologetic for apologetics. We need apologetics today more than ever to foster evangelism and to defend Christianity against the “charges” and “slander” (even oppression) inherent in modernity and post-modern relativistic pluralism But in order to move forward we must first alter the way we think, the way we speak, and, not least of all the way we give. We should become like the Sons of Issachar (I Chron. 12:32), who in their time discerned what God was doing and offered themselves and their resources in that hour of opportunity.
FOOTNOTES 1. The Aims of Jesus, (London SCM Press, 1979). 2. Ibid. 3. Christianity and Culture,” (an address at the opening of the one hundred and first session of Princeton Theological Seminary, 9/20/1912). 5. 4. Robert Wuthnow. Christianity Today, 38. (No.2, 2/7/1994). 23.
Dr. Smith is a Teaching Fellow for International Institute for Christian Studies.