One question that needs to be considered as we begin our apologetics channel is whether apologetics is a worthy or genuinely spiritual pursuit. The charges against apologetics look strong:
- Apologetics seeks to persuade people of the truth about God, but Scripture seems to say that they already know the truth of God’s existence and their accountability before him (Rom 1:20,32).
- Apologetics addresses its questions to the intellect, but the Bible indicates that the source of our objections are really spiritual (Rom 1:21-25) and can only be overcome by the Spirit (1Cor 2:12-13).
- Apologetics makes it sound like spiritual truth belongs to the learned and wise, but Paul speaks of a Gospel that confounds the wise (1Cor 1:18-31).
- Apologetics distracts people away from the most potent evidence God has given us. The person and Gospel of Jesus.
These are the warnings that come from Christian giants such as Tertullian, Pascal, Luther and Martin Lloyd Jones. For those who draw on Reformed roots, there is Calvin’s judgment that reason and general revelation can do little to establish faith:
They who strive to build up firm faith in Scripture through disputation are doing things backwards … the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. (Institutes 1.7.4)
It is therefore in vain that so many burning lamps shine for us in the workmanship of the universe to show forth the glory of its Author. Although they bathe us wholly in their radiance, yet they can of themselves in no way lead us into the right path. Surely they strike some sparks, but before their fuller light shines forth these are smothered.. (Institutes 1.5.14)
Those who remind us of the baleful effects of sin, and challenge us to focus on the spiritual power of the Gospel are correct. There is no hope for the spiritually dead in mere intellectual argumentation. God’s wisdom, power and purposes are invested in the cross and victory of his Son. If we allow ourselves to be drawn away from this we should not expect our apologetics to succeed.
Despite this, it does seem that arguments from general revelation and reason can serve as part of the proclamation of Jesus. In Acts 1:3 and 2:32 we hear of evidence for the resurrection. In Acts 14 and 17 we see Paul using the testimony of both creation and reason to introduce his Gospel message. He says that rain, food and happiness are evidence of God’s kindness and transcendent nature (Acts 14:17). He uses a pagan poem to show his hearers that they already know better (at least on some level) than to confuse God with idols (Acts 17:28-29).
None of Paul’s arguments here support “natural theology” – the idea that we might arrive at truth about God without Scripture. In Acts 17:23, he quite openly declares that the Athenians are ignorant about God. Moreover, given what he writes in Romans 1, we can be sure that for Paul, any “natural” theological truth humans do possess is due to the fact that God hasn’t yet fully handed them over to the darkening of their minds.
Yet Paul’s example shows that arguments which begin with creation and reason can be useful when they serve the Gospel of Jesus. They allow the apostle to begin with evidence and knowledge that his hearers already possess. They provide him with opportunities to remove false ideas that get in the way of the Gospel. They are part of the way he explains the good news to particular people whose minds are darkened in particular ways.
Apologetics and the Spirit
Paul’s approach here also challenges our ideas about the work of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we envisage the Spirit simply as a kind of brain surgeon who shows up at key moments to perform an operation in the brain of the hearer. We explain what Jesus did on the cross, the Spirit flicks a switch and the Gospel works.
This model is partly true, but it’s also too narrow. The Spirit doesn’t just show up to clinch the deal. He’s also at work in a minister’s preparation; in the significant conversations and life experiences that precede a conversion. For our purposes, he’s also at work when an evangelist is down in the marketplace learning how to explain and defend the Gospel – reasoning in the synogogue and marketplace (Acts 17:17).
This is how we should think about apologetics – as part of our appeal to the Spirit. We show our reliance on God, not just by praying (though never less than that), but by working hard: reading, thinking, talking and listening. Faithful apologetics isn’t an attempt to persuade people apart from the Spirit; it’s an offering we make to God, in the context of the world, hoping that he himself will make use of it.
Apologetics is for Fools. Thank God!
Apologetics isn’t needed because we lack reasons for faith – heaven and earth are full of God’s glory. We stand (to co-opt Calvin’s analogy) in a continual shower of sparks from God’s bright lamps. But apologetics exists because we, in our folly, suppress the truth. Apologetics seeks to point to fresh sparks before they are stamped out. It seeks to hold up those glimmering remnants of general revelation and show how they come from the True Light that gives light to everyone.
There is no guarantee that the project will succeed. Even when it does, the effect on the majority will often be an increase in darkness because the natural response is to quench this spark too. But we pray and work in the hope that God will start a fire from these sparks; that the one, who said, “let light shine out of darkness,” might use our efforts to let people see the his glory displayed in the face of Christ.
Image: Statue of Socrates, Louvre, Photo by Derek Key, Flickr