Cultivating the Practice of Apologetics

By John Simons

In an age of skepticism and disenchantment, there is an ever-growing need to grasp the art and science of apologetics. Whether you’re a pastor, lay leader, or church member, we each find ourselves in a position to continue developing our skills in navigating challenging questions about our Christian faith. As we look to reach our neighbors and those outside the church in our contemporary time, how we approach and cultivate the practice of apologetics has become all the more fundamental. Too often, our strategies for discussing, or even occasionally defending, our faith can be misguided and ineffective.

Fortunately, in Christian Apologetics: An Introduction, Alister McGrath, renowned theologian and apologist, helps us accomplish this task of becoming more skilled and wise apologists. Drawing from over 20 years, particularly his lectures at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, McGrath delivers an excellent overview of Christian apologetics. He traces the major historical approaches of apologetics, delving into multidisciplinary discussions on the nature and inherent attractiveness of truth, goodness, and beauty, and does so while connecting with readers on a practical level. Of course, given that McGrath has written many influential works, including that of C.S. Lewis: A Life, Mere Apologetics, and Mere Discipleship, we had no reason to expect anything less than exceptional work.


As McGrath addresses in the opening chapter of the text, apologetics has a mixed reputation in both the church and the academy.[i] Though it is often assumed that apologetics primarily serves to account for arguments of God’s existence via rational arguments, its role is far deeper and broader than such assumptions. At its best, apologetics aims to communicate Christian truths that may convince skeptics, while drawing them toward a true goodness and beauty that is ultimately captivating.[ii]

Throughout the first chapter, McGrath speaks to the core elements of apologetics: the defense, explanation, and translation of the Christian faith.[iii] He covers the main approaches throughout the history of apologetics – Evidentialism, Presuppositionalism, Rational Apologetics, Experiential Apologetics, and Narrative Apologetics. McGrath notes the vital importance of apologetics, contending it is an essential facet of Christian discipleship, as it lends itself to grasping the “bigger picture” of Christianity.[iv] Further, apologetics and evangelism are partners in that one clears the path of possible objections and increases the plausibility of faith, while the other is the actual invitation to follow Jesus.[v] The chapter closes by acknowledging apologetics in the twentieth century saw a great turn toward persuasion and rhetorical manipulation to win arguments. Yet, apologetics can’t create faith. That is only reserved for God, himself, whom we must invite to be an active participant in any apologetical conversation.[vi]

In the second chapter, Apologetics: Some Historical Themes, McGrath retraces several historical vantage points to help his readers grasp the long history of apologetics and the various approaches practiced. Beginning with the first roots of apologetics in the book of Acts and moving throughout the works of the early church – Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Augustine, to name a few.[vii] He then jumps to the Middle Ages and the rise of “Christendom” in regions of Europe, a rational and more public defense of core Christian beliefs, like that of the incarnation, takes center stage with Anselm and Aquinas. However, the Reformation would temporarily lead to a more minimal interest in apologetics, as Luther & Calvin prioritized theological reform and renewal within the churches of Western Europe.[viii]

Yet, in due time, the increasingly rationalist culture of the “Enlightenment” would prompt Christians, such as Hugo Grotius, to respond by contending for the superiority of Christianity over other major religions. Blaise Pascal also came forth as a significant apologetics figure, who elevated experience – not rationality – as he accounted for the importance of human emotions and intuition in sensing God.[ix] In coming closer to the present, McGrath covers the twentieth century, including G.K. Chesterton’s development of apologetics concerning imagination, and those who stood outside the traditional church structure – C.S Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Marilyn Robinson. However, before concluding the chapter, McGrath details the surge of Christian philosophy since the 1970s, highlighting the substantive work of Alvin Plantinga, Charles Taylor, Richard Swinburn, and William Lane Craig.

The third chapter, The Rationality of Faith, delves into the reasonableness of faith and the importance of demonstrating that Christianity (and its implied worldview) makes the best sense of our world. McGrath discusses various topics underneath, ranging from faith as justified belief and uncertainty to the broader classical philosophical arguments for God.[x] From Aquinas’s “Five Ways” to Anselm’s ontological argument, as well as Craig’s Kalam argument, McGrath briskly covers such material before turning toward Lewis & Swinburne on the idea of “inference to the best explanation.”[xi] However, McGrath prudently reminds us of the danger in rationalizing Christianity and instead allowing these discussions of God to help us understand our complicated world.[xii]

The following chapter, Connecting the Christian Faith with the Human Situation, deals with the essential connections between the Christian faith and the lives, hopes, aspirations, and traumas of ordinary people. A crucial facet for apologetics in our contemporary world is to explore how our faith presents a complex unity of reality, which draws cohesiveness to the “bigger picture” for human life. McGrath contends that apologists must recognize the “two horizons” – the New Testament and the modern individual.[xiii] To do so well, we must link the Gospel to the truth and desire of our need in God, to human belonging and closeness with Him, and ultimately, to find fulfillment, self-worth, and coherency of meaning in God himself.[xiv]

The fifth chapter, Exploring Points of Contact for the Christian Faith, provides a conversation centered around “signals of transcendence” that point to a grander vision of reality. For Christian apologetics, such “signals” can be further points of contact, or connections, of shared human experiences concerning the truth that we, as humans, are image bearers of God. [xv] In fact, Christian theology provides an organized framework of these “signals,” which helps clarify our underlying human longings and sense of wonder, the beauty and order of the natural world, our inherent sense of moral obligation, and our sense of existential anxieties and alienation.[xvi] All these “signals” lead us toward the core themes of the Gospel, but one could even reference Plato’s image of the cave to help frame these “signals” in an apologetic discussion.

The next chapter, Narrative Apologetics: Why Telling Stories Matter, superbly describes the rediscovery of a form of apologetics that is compelling through its multidisciplinary method and human imagination. Narrative apologetics seeks to demonstrate that Christianity tells a story that has the “potential to interpret, illuminate, and transform individual narratives across history.”[xvii] The Christian story is the “Grand Narrative” or metanarrative,” by which we can understand all other stories and engage life’s deepest questions. Key proponents, notably Lewis and Tolkien, advocate that we, as image bearers of God, naturally tell stories that illustrate our human condition, depicting our captivity to sinful desires and how we can find restoration and fulfillment in God. [xviii] Contemplating the stories we love can lead to receptivity of the real Gospel story.

The seventh chapter, The Importance of the Audience, considers the knowledge and perspective of the audience by which apologists engage. McGrath refers to the imagery of Mackay’s framework of “The Balcony” and “The Road,” which reinforces the very real need to distinguish one’s theoretical concerns of God’s existence and meeting someone in their season of life and potential suffering.[xix]  This is precisely why apologetics is both an art and science, because we are reaching not just a person’s rational capacities, but also their anxieties, story, and place of life.

The next chapter, Responding to Questions, addresses the many issues and potentially difficult experiences that may arise in conversations about the Christian faith. Throughout the chapter, McGrath covers ten representative questions that are often appealed to and sketches how one might reply. Topics include faith as an invention to console our existential anxieties, faith & scientific inquiry, the nature of miracles, and suffering and violence in the Old Testament.

The final chapter, Learning from the Wise, gleans wisdom from various representatives of different approaches in apologetics. To do so, McGrath draws upon the great works of George Herbert, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, Francis Schaeffer, and Charles Taylor. Each of these apologists showcases that apologetics ought to be an inherently multifaceted approach and done so with first recognizing one’s cultural context.[xx]

Pastoral & Ministry Application

is an excellent primer, discussing the nature of faith, doubt, and one’s worldview (including everything in between and underlying those topics). As McGrath disarmingly acknowledges, apologetics can be seen positively or negatively, depending on who you are talking to in the academic and ministry field. However, McGrath ushers his readers towards a greater understanding and the best apologetics strategies. He’s written with precision, and navigates the complexities of this content well, while discerning level of clarity and context that will empower his readers, not overwhelm them. We should celebrate such an effort because, for those in the ministry and pastoral setting, McGrath’s work poses a multitude of applications that we can take to heart.

One of those significant applications for pastors and ministry leaders alike comes in the way of McGrath’s presentation of MacKay’s framework of understanding your audience from the perspective of “The Balcony” and “The Road.”[xxi] As McGrath reminds us, apologetics is both a science – a deep familiarity with the Christian faith and its doctrines – and an art – a willingness to compassionately understand your audience in their cultural context, concerns, and life experiences.[xxii] MacKay’s imagery is an excellent reminder that we, as ministers, have very few exchanges with others while sitting on the Balcony – a distant place where we are detached from the everyday challenges and suffering and talk in abstractness about God. Conversations on the Balcony are few and far between (figurately speaking).

In fact, as a pastor, I can only name a handful of experiences that I have found myself chatting on the Balcony with an unbeliever. And to many great apologists’ defense, very few would ever suggest that walking through the logical arguments of chapter 3 would be the primary (or first) step toward helping someone more effectively hear the Gospel. Yet, conversations on the Balcony that concern the rationality of Christian faith more often than not occur with believers, who are diving into such topics to comprehend their worldview. The Balcony is a place to grab a cup of coffee and have the privilege to discuss academic concerns and potential responses on the nature of Christian faith.

However, for most conversations with unbelievers, apologetics comes alive on the Road. As McGrath describes, those on the Road are facing real life issues, suffering, trauma, and are often struggling to make life decisions that will affect their entire journey. When you are having a conversation on the Road, you are not merely speaking to someone observing the challenges or suffering of life, but actively in the midst of such. To meet someone on the Road is to have a difficult heart-to-heart with a neighbor or co-worker, who may have lost a loved one or enduring some physical or financial hardship.

And we should be grateful that McGrath recognizes the reality of the Road, because it influences his posture and message of the work. Life is difficult, and often, the work of apologetics is sitting in the messiness of life with others and telling them a better story. And most importantly, it is the heart of Jesus to meet them in their weakest and most vulnerable moments (Matthew 11:28-30). Our strategy for apologetics should clear the obstacles that stand in the way of sharing the Gospel. Many times, the question comes in the form of, “Why would a good God allow this?” Followers of Jesus step into the darkness of trials and tribulations of others and offer the hope of Jesus (Matthew 5:14-16).

Further, McGrath reminds us of the implications that all people are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28).[xxiii] We have an inbuilt sense of divinity, which establishes a fixed link between God and us and our deep longing for fulfillment and hope in Him. So, our reaching and connecting with unbelievers, as we share the Gospel, should directly integrate with the framework of the Road alongside McGrath’s six “signals, or points, of contact.” When we recognize people are hardwired for intimacy, belonging, and meaning, the conversations surrounding such are the best gateway for apologetics and evangelism to work hand in hand. Even though sin has warped our natural sense of beauty, belonging, and wonder in the world, our desire to truly experience it, as God intended, remains buried beneath the rubble.

Though each of these facets of life is now filled with disorder, let’s allow these “signals of transcendence” to be the greatest conversation starter in our contemporary world. In an anxious, isolated, and screen-bound world, these signals are each a felt need for those walking on the Road. Each of these signals can draw us toward a true interpretation of the world that we find ourselves in. And most essentially, it can point them toward a personal God who loves them and has demonstrated such through the loving acts of the incarnation and atonement.[xxiv]


Christian Apologetics: An Introduction is an engaging and helpful work that many readers, especially those passionate about apologetics, cultural analysis, and evangelism, will wrestle through and enjoy. Though McGrath does not delve into every matter thoroughly, readers will walk away with a far grander understanding of the vision and mission of apologetics. And as we continue navigating a declining Western culture, the way we reach the lost will not be to merely win rational arguments, but to highlight their great need of God to make sense of the world – its beauty and wonder – and our place within it.


[i] Alister McGrath. Christian Apologetics: An Introduction (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2024), 1.

[ii] Pg. 1.

[iii] Pgs. 3-4.

[iv] Pgs. 7-10.

[v] Pg. 11.

[vi] Pgs. 12-13.

[vii] Pgs.16-20.

[viii] Pg. 24.

[ix] Pg. 25.

[x] Pgs. 35-48.

[xi] Pgs. 49-55.

[xii] Pg.57.

[xiii] Pg. 65.

[xiv] Pgs. 69-84.

[xv] Pg. 87-89

[xvi] Pgs. 90-102.

[xvii] Pg.109

[xviii] Pg. 119

[xix] Pgs.128-129.

[xx] Pgs. 189-191.

[xxi] Pgs.127-129.

[xxii] Pg. 127.

[xxiii] Pgs.88-89.

[xxiv] Pgs.84-85.

Published February 19, 2024

John Simons

John Simons (Ph.D. candidate, Southern Baptist Seminary) serves as the Men's Pastor at Rolling Hills Community Church. He earned a M.A. Philosophy & M.Div. from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, as well as a B.A. in Political Science, California Baptist University. He lives in Nashville, TN with his wife, Kristen, and two kids, Noah & Maddie. You can find more of his writing at