I previously wrote to you about what ‘apologetics’ means, how apologetics can benefit you, and why you should approach apologetics as a tradition to join, rather than an encyclopedia to reference. In this post, I propose that the task of apologetics can be divided into three sub-disciplines with a strict order of priority. We’ll start with #3 and work our way up to #1.
“The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable”
—Proverbs 15:2 (NASB)
You might be the kind of person who loves reading up on practical suggestions of the “if they say x, then you can say y” variety, or you might utterly reject that approach as perfunctory, impersonal, and manipulative. In either case, let us categorize the development and criticism of such tactics (and their alternatives) as belonging to the general “craft” of apologetics.
Craft is important to apologetics for the simple reason that we have a goal in mind (to make a rational case for Christianity and respond to salient objections), and certain practices will serve that goal better than others. Working out the best way to serve that goal on a practical level—the craft of apologetics—will help us do a better job. Paul strategically quotes the Hebrew scriptures when speaking in synagogues, but quotes from pagan poets when preaching at Mars Hill. He makes use of reason in both cases. John starts his gospel off with philosophical terms and ideas familiar to his Greek audience. Jesus quotes the Law when speaking to Sadducees, but quotes freely from the Prophets and the Writings when talking to Pharisees, and He also makes good use of reason. These individuals cared deeply about their craft.
Greg Koukl’s Tactics offers up some practical “moves” to make in day-to-day conversations about religion. Reading and processing through this kind of material can be helpful to both non-academics and scholars alike (although for very different reasons).
I hope to be able to contribute a little bit to the craft of apologetics through some of these blog posts. My only caution on this point is to remember to go beyond merely reading this kind of material. Reflect on what you read, pray about it, discuss it, criticize it, expand on it, and make it your own.
Despite its value, craft is actually the least important aspect of Christian apologetics. The mode of presentation is not nearly as important as the message presented.
“Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge”
—2 Corinthians 11:6a (ESV)
Far more important than the craft of apologetics is the content. The serpent in Genesis was crafty, yet his content played a key role in separating humanity from God and enslaving us to sin. On the other hand, Moses initially resisted God’s call because he didn’t think he was eloquent, and yet the content of his message played a key role in liberating the Israelites from Egyptian captivity. Satan was a crafty deceiver while Moses was a bumbling idiot through whom God freed the slaves. The lesson here is not that content matters while craft does not. Jesus encourages His followers to exhibit the practical wisdom of a serpent (Matthew 10:16). Content makes all the difference. When it targets falsehood, persuasion ensnares, but when it targets truth, persuasion liberates. You ought to do your best to be both persuasive and truthful, but clearly truthfulness is the priority!
If you are interested in a book that focuses more on the content of Christian apologetics than Koukl’s Tactics, I recommend William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith. He clearly explains and develops major arguments for the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus, and responds to some of the major objections that have been raised against them. His primary concern is the actual logic and evidence involved in these arguments rather than their presentation in conversations to others. I like to recommend both of these books—Tactics and Reasonable Faith—to give readers training in both the craft and the content of Christian apologetics.
I’ll give you the same admonition about content that I did about craft: go beyond merely reading this material. Reflect on what you read, pray about it, discuss it, criticize it, expand on it, and make it your own. Remember that these arguments are developed by mere mortals, and treat them accordingly. Think for yourself and evaluate the evidence on its own merit, rather than on anyone’s authority. As you encounter arguments and evidences for Christianity that you personally find to be encouraging, committing them to memory will enable you to recall them during hard times. If you are just taking someone else’s word for it, this benefit vanishes! Similarly, as you grow in your ability to articulate and defend your beliefs, you will become more confident sharing Jesus with others. You will know that if hard questions come up, you will have something to say about them. On the other hand, if you are not thinking for yourself, you might find it difficult to communicate with those who aren’t convinced by the standard lines.
As important as content is however, it isn’t the most fundamental priority when it comes to Christian apologetics. Character is.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love,
I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
—1 Corinthians 13:1 (ESV)
It is rather tempting to explore verses, quotes, anecdotes, and statistics about the role that one’s character plays in one’s ability to make discoveries and in one’s ability to persuade. If you care more about saving face than finding truth, you might save face but you won’t find truth. If you are unwilling to admit when you are wrong, you will never become right. If you care more about winning arguments than winning souls, you are unlikely to win many of either. Mistreating people turns them off to what you have to say, but loving them often opens their ears. In fact, many people come to know Jesus because someone else who already knew Jesus showed love to them.
But I am going to resist the temptation to discuss all of the benefits of good character for one simple reason: it distracts from the real point: we ought to love. God first loved us. Love is not an instrument. Love should not be brandished as a tool for persuading other people to think and behave like we want them to. Trying to utilize love destroys it. Love’s value is intrinsic, not instrumental. Love is the weightiest and most fundamental priority of every Christian. Without content, craft does not matter. But without character, content does not matter. Let me put this on its own line:
Without love, apologetics does not matter.
Let us, above all, love and protect and nourish every precious individual human being that God made in His own image, whom He Himself loves, and for whom He sacrificed His very own Son. Let us do this first and foremost and regardless of anything else.
Let us pray that God will help us to live this out better today than we managed to do yesterday. It is ironic in a hideous and destructive way when those who claim to know the God whom the scriptures say “is love” exhibit hatred to others in our speech, through the policies we advocate, and by social exclusion. Even doing so in ignorance or lack of self-awareness is nevertheless blameworthy, as we bear a responsibility to reflect critically on our own thoughts and actions, and to listen carefully to the pleas of others. We must take responsibility for our part in how our words and actions are received. It is hypocritical to name ourselves after Christ while failing to sacrifice ourselves for others as He did. To avoid the suffering of others is the opposite of Christlikeness. We may be called to turn a soft cheek, but never a blind eye.
We all fall short of the standard that God calls us to. Nevertheless, we should neither lower the bar for ourselves nor fail to preach God’s call to sacrificial love in its full potency. It is better to acknowledge that we fall short, ask God for forgiveness, and put in the hard work that it takes to grow, than to lower our standards.
Will you join me in prioritizing character over content, and content over craft? Let us together love, seek truth, and do our best to communicate truth to others. In that order. God help us.