The term apologetics was at one time only rarely heard in Christian churches. Despite the widespread popularity of apologists such as C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer in the 1960’s and 70’s and Josh McDowell in the 80’s and 90’s, the vast majority of evangelical Christians in America today are completely unfamiliar with the discipline of apologetics. They neither know how to defend their faith nor share it effectively. Many believers live with a quiet fear regarding challenges to the Christian faith. They hold firmly to the Bible, but don’t want to have to think hard about why they believe it. As a result, many Christians avoid conversations with non-Christians about anything spiritual, since they have no confidence that they could provide answers if asked.
Yet, thinking about our faith and knowing it well enough to defend it are exactly what we are commanded to do in 1 Peter 3:15-16. Here we are each commanded to prepare ourselves to give an answer, or defense, when your faith is challenged. This is a significant part of evangelism, as discussions about the gospel rarely occur without some objections being raised by the unbeliever. Additionally, this duty is for every Christian, not just for pastors or scholars. This is the missing element in many churches’ evangelism strategy. The average church member feels ill-equipped to know what to say when confronted with any of the myriad attacks on the faith.
At the same time we now live in a time where apologetics is everywhere. The last fifteen years has seen an explosion of good books, websites, and resources to help Christians defend the faith in an increasingly hostile world. The advent of YouTube has made available thousands of debates, lectures, and lectures on apologetics. This is a positive blessing to the body of Christ. Christians have more resources now to help them than at any other time in human history.
First Peter 3:15-16 tells us that every Christian is to be prepared to “give an answer” or “make a defense” when his faith is challenged. Apologetics, then, concerns the defense of the Christian faith against all forms of unbelief. The word “apologetics” comes from the Greek word, apologia, in verse 15. This is a legal term meaning a defense against an accusation in a court of law.
One Greek Lexicon gives the range of meaning of this word: “to give an answer,” “to clear oneself of charges,” “to defend oneself in a court of law,” “to speak on behalf of oneself or of others against accusations presumed to be false” (Louw & Nida). In this context, when the Christian faith is falsely accused (“the Bible has errors” or “Jesus never rose from the dead”), the Christian is to give an answer that shows the accusation to be false.
Cornelius Van Til, professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in the mid-20th century, and pioneer in the field, gave this simple definition: “Apologetics is the vindication of the Christian philosophy of life against the various forms of the non-Christian philosophy of life” (Van Til, Christian Apologetics). This definition shows that a study of apologetics must include every kind of objection that may be raised up against the truth of Christianity.
A more recent definition includes the importance of showing the rationality and beauty of the Christian faith. William Edgar defines apologetics as “the art of persuasion, the discipline which considers ways to commend and defend the living God to those without faith.” (W. Edgar, “Christian Apologetics for a New Century: Where We Have Come From, Where We Are Going,” in NDCA, p. 3). The goal of defending the faith is to persuade the unbeliever that Jesus is the Messiah and he is in need of salvation. While defending the faith, however, we also ought to be commending it, that is, showing how the Christian faith answers the deepest needs of the human condition and makes sense of the world.
In the next post we’ll look at the examples in Scripture where apologetics was practiced.