How Not To Do Apologetics: Shut Down Your Opponent

December 4, 2017

I was the dinosaur kid. I think all children’s ministries and kindergarten classes are obligated by federal law to have one, and that kid was me. I voraciously consumed all books and videos related to dinosaurs. That means that my parents and grandparents all became experts in dinosaurs because the books they got to read to me again and again pretty much covered one subject: dinosaurs. 


Of course, one can only read so many books on the category of terrible lizards before getting into claims that push against what one generally believes as a Christian. I was no Christian at that age, but I was born into a family of Christians who taught me not to pick up everything that the dinosaur folks put down. After all, it does not seem rational (or honest) to hold that God created Man to be steward of creation and name all the animals and simultaneously believe that whole genera of animals came into being and became extinct before Adam started as an entry-level beast-namer with no previous experience.


I say that to say this: I have been interested in apologetics for a long time. I read my first book on apologetics before I finished elementary school. 


In modern language, the word “apologetic” is an adjective that describes a person who is regretful over something. However, the sense used in conjunction with Christianity is one of defense. Christian apologetics are articulations of defense of the faith, usually regarding its rationality or internal consistency (that is, that it is not self-contradicting). Paul actually engages in a short apologetic in Acts 17 when he explains himself to the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers at the Areopagus. Many of the works of the Church Fathers were written to defend Christianity from outside pagan criticisms and attacks. In the 20th century, two men stand out above all others: C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer. Their many apologetic writings remain in print though Lewis died on the same day as John F. Kennedy, and Schaeffer succumbed to his battle with cancer in 1984.  


My aim here and in several periodic, future posts will be to discuss what apologetics is and what it ought not be. Sadly, I feel this is necessary because over the years, and in various places, I have heard and seen apologetics used badly. I have seen apologetics misfire and actually undercut their own purpose. 


To start, I’ll provide one example of something that apologetics is not.


One need only peruse various news sites to find instances of verbal combat between a spokesperson for a political group and a commentator or host from the network related to the website. These videos are posted hither and thither, and often become shared with a title or heading that goes a little something like this ‘WATCH PERSON A, WHO AGREES WITH YOU, MR. RATIONAL, TOTALLY DESTROYS PERSON B, WHO IS OF THE OPPOSING PARTY AND CAN BARELY BUTTON HIS OWN PANTS.’


The apologetic task is one of the defense of the faith delivered once for all to the saints; it is in no way reached by destroying or shutting down an opponent. 


The apologist does not wish to generate an echo chamber in which to hear roaring approval of what he just said. He is not the prosecution in a sort of mob trial in which the opponent is paraded in front of the apologist’s supporters to be pelted with tomatoes and garbage. This may be the current rhetoric of popular news outlets, but this is not to be the practice of the apologist.


The work of apologetics makes the case that the claims of the Christian faith correspond with reality. The success of the apologist is not measured in the conversion of the mind of the opponent any more than the truthfulness of a proposition can be established by a vote. If an apologist’s opponent finds himself at a loss for words in response to the arguments offered in defense of Christian belief, that is one thing. However, for the apologist to seek to quiet the opponent through an onslaught of never-ending charges or unanswerable questions is another.


This makes at least two errors. For one, it does not distinguish Christianity as rational at all. Instead, it succumbs to the spirit of the age. This is the method of the world and the prevailing media and internet troll culture. It bears no witness to the claims of the Bible or the work of Christ. It’s mean-spirited, and though Scripture features strong words from Jesus and his followers to those who would attempt to discredit them, none of those words can truly be characterized as mean-spirited. So the apologetic task is actually undercut because the spirit of the age has shown itself to win out over solid rhetoric that is firmly-rooted in Scripture.


Secondly, attempts to simply “destroy” an opponent miss the purpose of the task of apologetics entirely. No one becomes convinced of the truth of an idea because they receive a strident berating. An opponent might submit, but the point is not submission to the apologist by intellectual force. The opponent then only shuffles off in defeat to either A) enter into his or her echo chamber to be reaffirmed that he was actually correct, or B) goes away thinking that Christians are just jerks who like to verbally beat up on people. Like most multiple choice questions, though, the most likely outcome likely proves to be C), in which both scenarios obtain. 


To be sure, some objections and charges against Christians and the Christian faith deserve to be tossed with yesterday’s rubbish (I will address many of those in the future); however, whether such a thing smacks of prudence proves different altogether. Proverbs speaks truly when it declares that the “gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (15:1). Gentleness and firmness do not necessarily conflict. 


Someone will object and say that the manner of speech in an apologetic interaction does not truly matter. After all, the Christian already plays defense; therefore, an attacker plies his trade against the believer. The attacker likely does not want to actually have a fair or even civilized debate or exchange, for he suppresses truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18) and thinks the Christian stinks of death (2 Corinthians 2:16). 


The above may very well prove true, often, it does. However, if the unbeliever will still shake his fist, the Christian bears responsibility to (as much as depends on him) to let the opponent take offense at the truth rather than the one expressing it. While the opponent to Christianity need only accomplish one thing, that is to wreck the confidence of others in biblical truth, the Christian apologist must attain two goals: express Christ’s truth while also displaying his character. To do the first while intentionally missing the second means failure. The point of interaction with an opponent is to perhaps turn the opponent into a friend, not to chase him away. Whether he likes it or not, he bears the image of God and remains part of the Great Commission charge until the end of the age. 


My task here has a positive and a negative dimension. As these posts appear, they shall both describe what defense of the faith is and is not. Above, we have seen one thing that it cannot be if it is to be effective and Christlike. More shall come, but for now, note the character of the Christian defense is key for its success.


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