Apologetics for the mind

Edited from an email I sent

It is undeniable that Christianity has made a tremendous intellectual impact during its two thousand-year history. As Christians throughout that time have tried to be faithful to both Matthew 28:16-20 and 1 Peter 3:15, they have engaged worldviews left, right and centre.

However, in recent decades, that apologetic mandate has been compromised or even denied. We can find many reasons for this (the advent of postmodernity, the flourishing of science, educational apathy, fideism, intellectual laziness etc) but we’d rather spend our energy reclaiming the rightful place biblical truth holds in the intellectual domain.

One aim of Christian apologetics is to demonstrate that the Christian worldview has intellectually valid and even superior explanatory power (notice the word “superior”. Every worldview offers explanations). In human words, it claims that the Bible holds all the real answers about the human condition, morality, the purpose of existence and other big questions we’re too busy to think about until it’s too late.

With all that, I’d like to recommend to you an entire free course in Apologetics by Philosophy Professor Douglas Groothuis. The course includes both lectures (MP3) and also lecture notes (HTML – can open with your browser or word processor). I liked how much time Groothuis devotes in putting apologetics into a biblical context, as well as occasionally sharing personal experiences from his own ministry. It’s material that goes both wide and narrow and even if you disagree with something, you will find it very helpful.

How to deal with theological differences

Christians are divided over many issues, which is the (at least original) reason behind different denominations within the Evangelical confession.

Often these differences become exacerbated and lead to actual divisions of fellowship and an overall loss of the love that should characterise relationships between Christians. Reacting to this, (usually a generation or so afterwards), some Christians try to “break down the barriers” between denominations, especially in para-church ministries. The idea that is often to “put aside those things that divide us and focus on the things we agree upon”.

What follow are some thoughts on the issue.

1. It is important to distinguish between major and minor differences. Is there a division over a major doctrine (e.g. the nature of God, nature of Christ, biblical attributes, Trinity, gospel, atonement etc.) or a minor, “secondary” doctrine (e.g. church polity, service content, eschatological details, Church/State relationships etc.)? In the first case, there is a biblical mandate to separate fellowship (Rom. 16:17; Galatians 1:8-9; 2 Thes. 3:6, 14; Titus 3:10; 2 John 9-11). But this does not extend to difference of opinions that are, as far as their proponents can see, biblically sound.

2. Minor differences may reflect differences in greater doctrines. For example, although we might think of ammilenianism and premillenianism as a minor difference, they often originate from very different views concerning the relationship of national Israel and the Church.

3. One way of addressing theological differences is to avoid/deny/minimise them altogether. But this  approach is short-lived benefits because it only allows for shallow, “restricted” fellowship. Sooner or later, differences will crop up again and again in practice, prayer, and teaching emphasis. This is unavoidable because healthy Christian fellowship requires the full extent of biblical truth.

4. The best way to deal with theological differences is to openly clarify them and humbly debate them. This has the multiple effects of

  • a) informing believers of a particular denomination what they actually believe and why; this leads to more biblically-critical thinking and less unqualified emotion – more light, less heat
  • b) informing believers of a particular denomination what “the other side” actually believes and why
  • c) promoting in-depth searching of the Scriptures (cf. Acts 17:11)
  • d) edifying one another (1 Thes. 5:11)
  • e) often casting the differences into their real light as either major or minor, or even as different angles on the same view.

Apologetics for the heart

From an email I sent

The ultimate purpose of apologetics is to overcome intellectual obstacles to the gospel so that people can actually hear the gospel. Like every other Christian ministry, apologetics is completely and utterly useless by itself. No-one ever came or ever will come to Christ through mere intellectual agreement; it is God who opens peoples’ hearts and eyes and minds to receive the good news (John 6:44; Acts 16:14). It is good to remember that when we are halfway through esteemed Professor Schwischwarffkopf’s 6,000-page treatise on the Ontological Argument und Adam’s Navel. And yes, I made that up. Don’t go Googling it.

But here’s a thought: Are apologetics only for non-believers? Are Christians immune to doubts, unanswered questions and bewildering problems? Of course not. In fact, we often suffer the worse because that’s not something Christians readily admit.

So what happens is, we readily engage the latest assault of village atheism with unmatched zeal, but meanwhile our personal walk with Christ has slowed to a trudge. We educate unbelievers on why the Bible is historically, textually and scientifically reliable, but that seems to have very little impact anymore on the way we read it – if we do.

My point is, apologetics should be levelled first at ourselves before we start wielding those five arguments for the existence of God. Why? Because we still need to grow. We are still vulnerable. But we are supposed to be constantly transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2) and that goes beyond mere intellectual agreement.

With that in mind, I recommend Timothy Keller‘s sermons, which you can find here. Keller has become known for the relevant and biblically uncompromising way he does apologetics. These aren’t dry lectures – they are passionate and deeply insightful answers to some really tough questions. But it goes beyond that: Keller speaks to Christians and addresses some of the things that constantly harrow us. It’s the kind of thing you want to take notes on.

Eight preacher types to avoid

Disclaimers:

i) I have been guilty of most of these the few times I’ve ever preached. But even though I can think of a specific example for each one of these types, this list is for humorous purposes only. If they go beyond humour, I leave it to the reader to decide why.

ii) There are tons of other types we could add here. There are tons more to be said about these types. I’m just trying to be broad and brief. If you think of anything to add, then comment and we’ll draw up another list. Remember, this is filed under “Humour”.

  1. The seminary grad. You can almost see him practising in front of the mirror last night. You can almost see the homiletics textbook he’s using. Alliteration, three points, attention to fine points of theology unrelated to the sermon. Tries too hard and ends up flustered. If only he’d gone for simplicity. Result: You feel like you’ve been to a theology PhD defence.
  2. The scholar. Lots of grammar. Lots of Greek, Hebrew, 16th century German/French and Latin. Without translation. Some Ugaritic thrown in for good measure. Quotes obscure fellow scholars. Laughs at esoteric field jokes. Goes off on quiet mumbles. Takes notes of new thoughts while he speaks. Result: you feel like the student who didn’t study for the test.
  3. The drill instructor/coach. Lots of “on your feet, soldier”. Lots of war/battle metaphors. Heavily focused on human responsibility and much less on God’s grace. Grace is for sissies. Little sympathy for those who are down. They just need to, well, “get on their feet”. He’d have the congregation up and marching if he could. Result: you feel a few inches further away from God than before the sermon. Also, your face hurts for some reason.
  4. The supernova. Burns bright and hot, but blinds everyone in the process. Lots of shouting. Lots of emotion. Crying. Laughing. Dancing. Breaks into spontaneous song. Lots of “let me hear you say amen/hallelujah/other Hebrew word. Result: Blind and burnt.
  5. The stand-up. Lots of jokes and “amusing anecdotes”. Everything is sunny-side up. Does imitations. Can’t read half a passage without crackin’ a funny. Things like sin and holiness and other killjoy matters don’t register on the radar much. Result: You feel like you’ve been to a comedy club. And it wasn’t good. It wasn’t good.
  6. The relevant. Pop culture references abound. Even references to pop culture that no-one gets. Peroxide hair. Thick-rimmed glasses. Casual. Might hold Venti latte. Open MacBook Air while he speaks. More Hollywood that Holy Word. He’d juggle live alligators while riding a unicycle if he thought that would lend validity to his message. His message? Jesus be cool y’all. Or something like that. Result: Huh? Sorry, I was tweeting the whole time.
  7. The politico. As far as he’s concerned, Jesus came to earth to promote Fair Trade coffee, address social injustice, free Tibet and boycott Nestlé. The Bible was written to empower us for social change. Doesn’t matter what social setting we’re in; there’s always something wrong with the world. Lots of hot-button issues. The ultimate exegesis for every passage always leads mysteriously to something in the news. Result: Angry mobs. Either way.
  8. The postmodern. It’s all about the meta-narrative. The purpose is the journey, not the destination. Truth is relative. No absolutes, except that there are no absolutes. Inherent contradictions ignored. It’s all good – if there was such a thing as good. Result: There’s no such thing as a result. Results are so modern.