Monday, March 04, 2019

How Important Is Apologetics?

I recently wrote a post on Facebook about the usefulness of apologetics. I want to expand on some points I made there. I'll repeat part of what I said in that post, then expand on it.

Apologetics makes Christianity a viable option to people. As William Lane Craig often notes, apologetic efforts "help to shape and preserve an intellectual milieu in which faith in the Jesus of the New Testament is still a rational alternative for most persons in our culture." (in Paul Copan, ed., Will The Real Jesus Please Stand Up? [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1998], 178) What if a culture became convinced that the Bible teaches that the earth rests on the back of a turtle and that the world would end in 1500 A.D.? If people thought Christianity had been falsified to that extent, how much consideration would they give to becoming or remaining Christian? The ability of critics of apologetics (and people only mildly supportive of it) to lead people to Christianity through sermons, drama, music, family tradition, charity work, and other non-apologetic means is largely indebted to Christian scholars and lay apologists doing the groundwork needed for Christianity to be viewed as a viable option.

People are often more interested in reasoning and evidence than we think. If you were to ask Americans to justify their belief that George Washington was the first president of the United States, I suspect the large majority would be bad at articulating why they believe it. But they have good reasons for holding the belief, even if they haven't thought about the reasons much and aren't good at explaining them (the general trustworthiness of human testimony, the lack of dispute over the belief in question, the unlikelihood of a sufficient motive for fabrication, etc.). They aren't as concerned with reason and evidence as they ought to be, but it would be wrong to say that they have no concern at all.

In addition to not thinking about such issues much and being bad at articulating their views, people often refrain from discussing these subjects because their reasoning and evidence are at such an undeveloped stage that they'd prefer not to discuss them. Or they don't want to take the time and effort to do it. Or they want to avoid getting involved in a controversy. And so on. People can, and often do, have a variety of motives for not expressing an interest in reasoning and evidence, even though they do have such an interest. We need to be cautious about concluding that people aren't interested in apologetics or reason and evidence more broadly. They're often interested without having much of an awareness of that interest or without being willing or able to express it well.

We need to be cautious when we think we've failed to persuade somebody about something. Maybe we've failed, and maybe we haven't. We often give up prematurely. If somebody articulated an objection to Christianity, and you answered the objection sufficiently, the objector may initially be dishonest about how persuasive your answer was or he may need more time to think about it. Or he may have had other objections in mind as well, which he didn't tell you about, so that his overall view of Christianity doesn't depend only on the one issue he discussed with you. Even when a person is unreasonable to some extent, that unreasonableness is often accompanied by some degree of reasonableness. Often, a person's motives and capabilities are mixed rather than uniform. I'm just giving a few potential scenarios here without trying to be exhaustive. My point is that when we dismiss people as being unmoved by apologetics, that dismissal is often inaccurate. And I'm not just referring to whether skeptics are influenced by apologetics. I'm also referring to how Christian critics of apologetics often have more interest in reason and evidence than we think.

When people object to apologetics on the basis that it supposedly doesn't work, we should ask how consistent they are in applying that standard. When they pray for the conversion of people, but all or most of the people they pray for don't convert, do they conclude that prayer doesn't work and, therefore, stop praying? If something like lifestyle evangelism or friendship evangelism doesn't result in the conversion of all or most of the people they're trying to influence, do they give up on those practices? In my experience, it seems that critics of apologetics tend to be inconsistent in this context. If their criticisms of apologetics always or usually fail to change the minds of their opponents, will they stop criticizing apologetics? I doubt it!

If people supposedly can't handle reasoning and evidence in the context of apologetics, then why stop there? Doesn't it follow that people also can't handle reasoning and evidence when it comes to Bible interpretation, the handling of church finances, church discipline, etc.? So, should we let people interpret the Bible in a highly subjective manner, with little or no regard for grammar and historical context? After all, if people can't handle discussions of history in the context of apologetics, why would they supposedly be able to handle historical issues in the context of Biblical interpretation? Or in a church discipline context, why can't somebody accuse you of, say, theft on the basis of a feeling or intuition he has, without any evidence? Once you close the door to reason and evidence in the context of apologetics, how do you selectively open it back up in other contexts? If your grandmother and your neighbor down the street supposedly can't handle apologetics, then why should we think they can handle scripture interpretation, making decisions about ethical issues, etc.?

It's true that not everybody is or can be a scholar. But there's a large gray area between being a scholar and the appallingly low standards we hold most people to in apologetic contexts. If you don't expect much from people, they'll often live up to those low expectations.

One way to tell what people are capable of is to look at what they've already done. In school, people are taught subjects like algebra, trigonometry, American history, social studies, and chemistry. In other contexts in life, they're constantly learning new careers, how to use new technology, learning new computer programs, learning how to cook, to repair things, to build things, learning about sports, reading thousands of pages of romance novels, science fiction books, etc. But we're supposed to think they can't handle much in apologetics?

If most people are as incapable of being involved in apologetics as is often suggested, why is apologetics such a major part of Christianity and scripture? The Bible is structured around a framework of apologetics. The early Christians often referred to the two Testaments of scripture as "the prophets and the apostles" (e.g., The Muratorian Canon; Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, 1:1; cf. 2 Peter 3:2). Josephus and other ancient Jewish sources refer to how the closing of the Old Testament canon was brought about by the cessation of the prophets and prophecy. Evidential concepts like fulfilled prophecy and eyewitness testimony (apostles had to be eyewitnesses of the risen Christ) formed the parameters of scripture. People often cite individual passages of the Bible, like 1 Peter 3:15, to justify apologetics, which is appropriate as far as it goes. But apologetics is more foundational than that. Much the same can be said of the relationship of apologetics to the church, which is founded on the apostles (Ephesians 2:20), and the Messiahship of Jesus, which is a concept involving prophecy fulfillment. The Egyptians were expected to understand the apologetic significance of Moses outperforming the magicians of Pharaoh. The Israelites were expected to understand the apologetic significance of Elijah outperforming the prophets of Baal. Jesus expected the people of his day in general, not just a small minority, to understand the apologetic significance of his prophecy fulfillment, healings, and other miracles. We see the same with the apostles in Acts, Paul's letters, etc. In Acts 17:31, Paul refers to how God has "furnished proof to all men" through the resurrection of Christ. He refers to "all men", not just a small minority who are concerned with evidential issues. Apologetics is a major component of Christianity and ought to be a major part of the life of a Christian.

To whatever extent people are unprepared to handle apologetics in some situations, the solution is often to be involved in apologetics more, not less. If a student is struggling with math, we make some effort to help him improve rather than abandoning any effort to teach him as soon as we see that he's struggling, and we don't give up after only putting forward a token effort to improve the situation.

I suspect one reason why many people are negligent about apologetics is that they dislike some of the implications of holding as high a view of apologetics as I'm advocating here. It's not just that they don't want to take the time and other resources needed to do apologetic work themselves. They also dislike the implication that their relatives, friends, and other people in their lives have been wrong for neglecting apologetics. If reasoning and evidence are so important in religious contexts, then what does that suggest about somebody's grandmother, who had so little understanding of and interest in apologetic issues? Was she a bad person or a less good person than I'd prefer to think? We want to avoid that conclusion. And we allow our desired conclusions to set the parameters for what we should and shouldn't expect from people in apologetic contexts. Did grandma have little involvement in apologetics? Then there must not be any problem with that. But that's not how we approach other areas of life. If grandma was a racist, we don't conclude that racism therefore must be okay. When there's a cultural consensus that something like racism or sexism is wrong, peer pressure (among other factors) leads us to acknowledge that our grandparents or other people were wrong about such issues. We still think highly of those individuals, for other reasons, but we acknowledge their faults at the same time. By contrast, there isn't much cultural consensus and peer pressure on a matter like the importance of apologetics, so we don't sense as much of a need to admit that people have been wrong in that context. What we ought to do, though, is appreciate the good in people while being honest about all of their faults, not just some. That includes neglect of apologetics.

I'm not suggesting that the average person should be as involved in apologetics as the best apologists today are. Rather, if apologetics weren't so neglected, nobody would need to carry as heavy a burden as the hardest workers in apologetics have to carry today. We need a larger number of people carrying lighter loads instead of expecting such a small minority of the population to bear such an inordinately heavy burden. I'd estimate that only a small fraction of one percent of the population of a nation like the United States is involved in apologetics at an intermediate or advanced level. A significantly bigger percentage is involved at an introductory level, thankfully, but there's a lot of neglect even there. If we were to get, say, five percent of the population to do apologetic work at an intermediate or advanced level, that would be a major improvement over the current situation. The percentage ought to be higher than five, but even five would be a big improvement.

Non-Christians aren't going to arm themselves with a peashooter and a cardboard shield just because most Christians choose to arm themselves that way. If the non-Christian world decides to operate at an intermediate or advanced level, we don't have the option of responding with introductory apologetics. To a large extent, the level at which we should operate is determined by our opposition. People in a country like the United States are surrounded with anti-Christian apologetics. We get it in classrooms, on television, on the web, in books, and elsewhere, and those anti-Christian apologetic efforts often involve philosophers, historians, ethicists, and other scholars who are operating above an introductory level. They come into your home and do it. They do it in your children's classrooms. They influence your friends and relatives. The question isn't whether Christians are going to start occupying an empty battlefield. It's not empty. It will be dominated by anti-Christians if we don't get on the battlefield and fight like it matters.

If most people aren't influenced much by reasoning and evidence, then why do non-Christians invest so much in arguing for their worldviews? Why do they try to influence what's taught in classrooms, produce television programs with scientists arguing for naturalistic evolution, write articles against the historicity of the Bible at Eastertime and Christmastime, etc.? If argumentation doesn't influence people, why do Christians object so much to anti-Christian arguments in classrooms, books that are published, the media, movies, etc.? You can't have it both ways. You can't claim that people aren't influenced by arguments while objecting to how people are being influenced by anti-Christian arguments in our culture.

Just as there's a lot of intellectual neglect in religious circles, we also see it in other contexts, like politics. I've cited some of the statistics before. About three-quarters of Americans can't name the three branches of government. Most Americans can't name a single Supreme Court justice. Almost half of Americans can't name the current vice president. And so on. The solution I've suggested in politics is that we meet people where they are, but also call them to a higher standard. If their vote is inordinately determined by the personality of a candidate, what he looks like, his oral communication skills, and so forth, then we try to get candidates who will appeal to people at that sort of level. At the same time, we try to get people to grow up in their approach toward politics. Get them to learn more, think in more depth, spend more time on the issues involved, etc. We should take the same approach toward apologetics. Meet people where they are. Appeal to them through sermons, music, stories, analogies, etc. At the same time, call them to a higher standard. Keep trying to appeal to them in non-apologetic ways, but simultaneously try to get them to mature in apologetic contexts.

As long as people have minds and we live in a fallen world, apologetics is of major importance. It's not as though only a small minority of people have minds or our minds only have a small role in our lives. Apologetics has big significance because the mind has big significance.

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