Some believers are suspicious of and opposed to apologetics. They view it as being contrary to faith. They fear that if Christianity can be shown to be reasonable, then there is no place for faith. This anti-intellectual approach to Christianity is rooted in a misunderstanding of the word “faith” itself.
The word translated as “faith” and “belief” in the New Testament is pistis. Pistis encompasses a number of ideas, all of them revolving around an intentional, engaged trust.
Definitions include “firm persuasion, the conviction…a firmly relying confidence.” Lawrence O. Richards notes, “Pistis and related words deal with relationships established by trust and maintained by trustworthiness.” When we trust something, we have reasons for it, evidence that justifies and supports it.
A claim is not true just because we believe it or untrue because we don’t believe it. First, we assess the evidence and reasons for its truth. Next, we weigh the evidence to determine how well supported these claims are. Finally, we trust; we exercise faith based on the weight of the evidence. Faith is not Christian-branded hoping or wishing. Those who embrace other belief systems incompatible with Christianity will often follow this same process. The difference comes down to how each assesses the evidence for its position as well as others. Faith is the product of investigation and deliberation, and reason is its grounding and its backbone, not its enemy.
On the other hand, to believe in something without first seriously reflecting on it or looking into it is not an act of faith, it is an act of foolishness. It is not, as some have held, a virtue to believe something without evidence or reason. The person who says, “You just have to have faith,” is really just proclaiming he has no idea what faith is. The whole point of Christianity is not that we have faith—that is no different from any other religion or worldview. If just having faith were the goal, all would be saved since everyone believes something. No, faith itself is not the object. In fact, what differentiates religions is the object of each faith. The content of faith ultimately is what matters. And the content of a faith is what must be investigated and then embraced or rejected.
Christian apologetics is neither a new practice nor is it unbiblical. In fact, it is not only modeled in the New Testament, but it is also commanded. The Greek word apologia, which is where we get our word apologetics, is used to describe a defense, as in a legal defense or making a case.6 In the New Testament it is translated as defense or vindication as in the following verses:
“Brethren and fathers, listen now to my defense before you.”—Paul before a Jewish crowd as he was arrested in the temple, Acts 22:1
“It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because I have you in my heart, and you are all partners with me in grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and establishment of the gospel.”—Paul, Philippians 1:7
“I am appointed for the defense of the gospel.”—Paul, Philippians 1:16b
“But set apart the Messiah as Lord in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. However, do this with gentleness and respect, keeping your conscience clear, so that when you are accused, those who denounce your Christian life will be put to shame.”—Peter to suffering Christians in what is modern-day Turkey, 1 Peter 3:15–16
The idea of apologetics is assumed in the exhortation of Jude 3 when he tells believers to “contend earnestly for the faith.”
In Acts 17:22–34, we see a picture of Paul practicing apologetics in Athens on Mars Hill.
“Then Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus and said: ‘Men of Athens! I see that you are extremely religious in every respect. For as I was passing through and observing the objects of your worship, I even found an altar on which was inscribed: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.”
“‘Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it— He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands. Neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives everyone life and breath and all things. From one man He has made every nation of men to live all over the earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live, so that they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. For in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ Being God’s offspring, then, we shouldn’t think that the divine nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image fashioned by human art and imagination.
“‘Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent, because He has set a day on which He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead.’
“When they heard about resurrection of the dead, some began to ridicule him. But others said, ‘We will hear you about this again.’ So Paul went out from their presence. However, some men joined him and believed, among whom were Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.”
This led him to argue for the faith in two ways. First, Paul found common ground in the fact that his audience believed in some form of religion. The problem, according to Paul, was that they believed in something false, not that they believed in nothing. They had a religious worldview, but it was full of holes. Knowing the egregious flaws in their religious systems, he made a case for Christianity as a belief system in which there is coherence between the power that created and sustains the universe and the sense of justice widely prevalent in Greek society.
Second, Paul argued based on facts that could be investigated by anyone who was interested. He recognized that if Christianity was true, it must be rooted in facts. Paul saw the contact point in the historical, physical, temporal aspects of the life of Jesus. Jesus was a real person who did and said certain things in certain places at certain times. Witnesses to Jesus’ life and teaching could be found and questioned regarding these things.
Jesus’ reality—His historicity—is the foundation of Christianity. Without it, there is no Christianity. Paul was so sure of this foundation that he went so far as to point out the most vulnerable claim of the Christian faith:
“Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say, “There is no resurrection of the dead”? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is without foundation, and so is your faith. In addition, we are found to be false witnesses about God, because we have testified about God that He raised up Christ—whom He did not raise up if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Therefore those who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished. If we have placed our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone.”
If Jesus did not live, do, and say the things claimed by the apostles, then Christianity is false. If there is a better explanation for the resurrection, then Christians are simply wasting their time.
By pointing out this vulnerability, Paul was really pointing out the strength of Christianity. So convinced was he of the historicity and verifiability of the resurrection, the event that confirmed the claims of Jesus, that he pointed out how to prove it false—almost as a challenge. Christian claims can be investigated and tested. This challenge has no parallel in other religions. No other sacred text shows how to destroy its own claims.
The church fathers showed they understood the importance of Jesus’ historicity when they crafted the Nicene Creed, the universally accepted creed of the church. The creed says, “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” Why mention Pontius Pilate? What doctrine is based on him? The answer is: none; there is no doctrine based on Pilate. He is mentioned to remind us that these were real events happening to a real person at a particular point in history.
Many critics of the New Testament understood this and used it as a point of attack saying that Pilate never even existed, that there was no evidence of Pilate outside the New Testament. That changed in 1961 because of an archaeological find at Caesarea Maritima. A team of Italian archaeologists were excavating the theater there and found a stone with an inscription had been repurposed to be used in a repair. Some of the inscription was still legible and gave the names of Tiberius and Pontius Pilate, as well as the title Prefect of Judea. As a result, the historicity of Pontius Pilate is no longer questioned.
Behind Paul’s bold approach is a logic and coherence that empowered him because he understood the importance of the intellect as it relates to faith. The importance of the life of the mind was directly addressed by Jesus Himself when He quoted the greatest commandment, which is found in Deuteronomy. In Matthew 22:37 Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The Christian life is a balance of the intellect, emotions, and experience. God is the object on which they should all be focused, in which reason is grounded, and that which gives the world coherency and meaning.
This post is an excerpt from the Holman QuickSource Guide to Christian Apologetics by Doug Powell. It is used with permission. You can purchase this resource in its entirety here.
Published September 18, 2017