Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Futility of Apologetics?

Eph. 4:17-18: "So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart."

At least in this passage, futility of mind, darkened understanding, and ignorance that makes it impossible to participate in the life of God all stem not from stupidity or lack of convincing arguments, but from hard hearts. Just ask Pharaoh how difficult it is to change your course of action towards God when you heart is hardened against Him.

But then, there are always means by which God accomplishes His ends. Isn't it possible that rational arguments are God's means at least sometimes of bringing people out of their ignorance?

Or take the more familiar example of Rom. 1:19-20: "...because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse." Here is a verse often quoted in support of apologetics because it seems to so obviously point to the intended efficacy of natural revelation.

But then, the whole point of Rom. 1:18-32 is that all humanity alike has sinned and faces the wrath of God. Put another way, despite all the natural revelation in the world (literally), no one gets the point! V. 18 says that men "suppress the truth in unrighteousness" (not "unknowingness"). The condition of man's heart is the problem, which means that the condition of man's mind isn't- or at least not fundamentally.

Paul in Athens in Acts 17 doesn't really help either no matter how often it is quoted in defense of apologetics. Sure, it does support the need to contextualize, but Paul ends up going to the resurrection as the witness of who God really is, not to natural theology.

But then, while it is easy for we theo-nerds to blog about the uselessness of apologetics, what do we say when we're sharing the gospel with someone who gives us their reasons why God cannot exist to begin with, or why Jesus most certainly was not raised from the dead? "I'd tell you why you're wrong about that, friend, but as the infallible Dr. Barth has blessedly taught us, it would do you no good. You need a good dose of special revelation, and until you get it, I cannot help you." Somehow I doubt that would help.

So what is the solution? Frankly, I don't know. On the one hand, I know that all the arguments in the world do nothing for a hard heart. On the other, I know that God does not typically zap people with heart change totally outside of life circumstances, whether they be emotional, moral, intellectual, or otherwise.

And this, dear reader, is why I write this post: to ask you to guide me. I know other CiC writers have wrestled with this as well, and I suspect that they will not only have helpful comments, but that they too will appreciate your input.


Unknown said...

Andrew, let me offer my two sense from Jonathan Edwards's side of things. For Edwards, regeneration is certainly immediate, all at once, and without rational thought. In other words, God enlightens and man responds to that enlightening. But, Edwards certainly would not just tell unbelievers to live pagan lives until God zaps them. The solution was to seek God. Edwards would admit that God does "zap" people sometimes (Paul always the classic example), but he was quick to note that this does not usually happen. Seeking rational understanding of Christianity can never save you, but what it can do is help to establish your heart towards the truth - which, without the regeneration of the Spirit will not get you anywhere. I think apologetics can play a similar role. In my mind, to say anything else would be to affirm, "Yes, if you aren't a Christian the best bet is to live it up until God zaps you." Few want to say that I imagine.

Ian Clausen said...

Barth's distinction between polemic and apologetic may be significant here. As also Augustine's (!) theory of divine illumination.

But, I need to go to bed. Will be interested to learn what people think in the meantime.

Victor Ware said...

Barth Proof-text time!!

"The Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths. The Gospel is not the door but the hinge. The man who apprehends its meaning is removed from all strife, because he is engaged in a strife with the whole, even with existence itself. Anxiety concerning the victory of the Gospel--that is, Christian Apologetics--is meaningless, because the Gospel is the victory by which the world is overcome. ... It [the Gospel] does not require representatives with a sense of responsibility, for it is as responsible for those who proclaim it as it is for those to whom it is proclaimed. It is the advocate of both. ... God does not need us. Indeed, if He were not God, He would be ashamed of us. We, at any rate, cannot be ashamed of Him." (The Epistle to the Romans, 35)

pgardella said...


There are two purposes to apologetics: defensive and offensive.

The defensive is to help build up the convictions of believers so that when they are challenged, they will be able to explain the hope they have within them (1 Peter 3:15). People often equate faith with blind faith and set faith against reasons. But it's not. The opposite of faith is unbelief, and the opposite of reason is irrationality. Christianity is based on a historical fact: that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead by God, proving who he was (your example of Paul in Acts 17 goes here).

On the other side, the offensive, is to be able to defend your convictions to others. Do I believe you can "argue" someone into heaven? In most cases, no. But you just might be being used by God to put a stone in their shoe and get them to think about it. If their hearts are truly hardened, you aren't going to get anywhere. But it's still our job to tell them the good news, and explain why we believe it. God does the heart softening.

Finally, apologetics doesn't just appeal to natural theology. It makes use of all of Scripture (general and special revelation) and our reasoning to try to answer those questions. How do we know that Jesus was raised from the dead? I can give you a long explanation based on historical evidence using facts that are accepted by the harshest critics of Christianity. (See Gary Habermas' site:

I'd be happy to speak to you at length about this, if you are interested. I'm pretty sure you can see our email addresses, so drop me a line. - Patrick

Ian Clausen said...

Here's a thought.

My difficulty with apologetics is that it marginalises or overlooks the gratuitousness of God's grace and the work of the Holy Spirit. It strikes me as uneasy or unsound when fellow brothers and sisters in Christ (genuine believers, to be sure) narrate their 'conversion' stories by identifying some book or article or lecture or person who/which convinced them of the 'truth' and so initiated their faith. I know what they mean, of course, but in the theological sense it is tempting blasphemy: there is only one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ the Son. Only in Christ through the Holy Spirit is the inner life of the Trinity, real knowledge of God, made available to us. The vanity of philosophy is in always circumventing this point, always overlooking its condition which inhibits true wisdom. Faith adheres to the Son by the grace of God through the Holy Spirit - where in this process is a good argument, an apologetical 'Jesus really did get resurrected, let me prove to you how'?

Then again, I can fully agree with Andrew about 'what we actually do' when we witness. No one wants to be shown up in their knowledge of the Bible, in history or science or whatever, and to come away feeling her faith is futile. Perhaps this is our discomfort and inevitable struggle with the terms of modernity, the age of scientism and puffed up knowledge. Apologetics exist to suffuse us with confidence in Christ, rather than just Christ suffusing us with that confidence.

Which is why I'm tempted to jump ship from apologetics in the conversion sense: it is a protest of modernity, a return to theology which is always already the result of the Spirit acting in and upon us.

But maybe I can be persuaded otherwise? :)

Ian Clausen said...

Apologies (!): I meant to say 'jump ship with apologetics' and to suggest that in jumping ship, I am participating in a protest of the terms of modernity, which establishes certainty on historical or scientific grounds rather than on the ground that Christ is.

The bad joke at the end was purposeful though.

pgardella said...

Ian, let me ask you a question then. What do you do when you witness? There is no persuasion?

You'll get no argument from me that it isn't the grace of God working through the Holy Spirit to change their hearts/minds/souls and see the truth of Jesus Christ. It is God's grace that brings us to conversion and then on into life.

But from the Ephesians passage Andrew uses at the beginning of his post. The Gentiles walk "in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart." How does the Gentile go from the ignorance that is in them and the hardness of heart to becoming a follower of Christ?

The passage in Ephesians goes on to talk about them having "learn Christ", being "taught in him, just as truth is in Jesus", and "being renewed in the spirit of your mind", and to "SPEAK TRUTH" (caps in the NASB). I see that it is because of the truth that they heard from Paul and others that they put on the new self.

My point is that God uses all of us, through our actions and our words (to bring in the "orthodoxy to orthopraxy" ;), to come into the light of understanding, while God changes their hearts.

To stick with our example of the resurrection we've been using thus far, if someone doesn't believe that resurrection is possible, either it's going to take an act of special revelation specifically for that person to believe, or someone is going to have to show them that there are good reasons to believe that the resurrection occurred. If God isn't changing that person and drawing her/him to God, then the explanation will just be words. But if God is changing the person, a friendly explanation might be the means "of bringing people out of their ignorance".

On your point of certainty, our certainty certainly comes from Christ (my turn at a bad joke). Modernity has its deep flaws, but there are parts we need to keep. My "discomfort and inevitable struggle with the terms of modernity" is its coldness and reliance on pure logic to solve all problems.

I'm not talking about an apologist that is always looking to win the discussion. Perhaps that's the type you've run into the most (like I have with street corner evangelists handing out tracts and yelling.) Instead, I'm talking about helping someone answer the doubts and confusions they have that are getting in the way. I want the person to know the truth, to know Christ, not to win the argument. If I have all knowledge, but don't have love, I'm nothing.

Ian Clausen said...


Point(s) well-taken.

Here I think it is important, however, to nail down just what we mean when we talk about 'apologetics'. The word usually designates that intellectual practice of defending the validity or truthfulness of a certain set of beliefs. It rests upon universally accepted premises/principles (scientific, let's say, or historical, etc) from which it attempts to provide 'good reasons' to believe these beliefs. If this is what we take to be apologetics, then I would submit the following (theological) qualm:

God is Truth. As Truth, he is not like other true things. He cannot be the object of our rational scrutiny the way rocks or trees or even elusive 'objects' like Wall Street are. He is categorically different, indeed He is no category at all. He is at the root of all understanding, all knowledge, rather than derivative from a set of universally agreed-upon foundations or premises. He is not the sort of truth we should subject to reason. He subjects our reason to Truth, i.e. Himself.

Theologically speaking, then, I have a tough time understanding just how apologetics faithfully integrates itself into the beliefs that uphold me. If it is really the case, as Paul says, that 'God has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ' (II Cor. 4.6), if this means far more than warm fuzzies about God further to our historical and scientific proofs that he exists, he died, he rose from the dead because, look, quantum physics makes it possible - if this means more, then we ought to regard theology, and not apologetics, as the proper and faithful response to who God is. Because God has shone in our hearts, indeed is shining; and call us to preach, not defend, the truth which he has given.

What that looks like is nothing other than Church. Theology through the Sacraments, through preaching and through Scripture and through the good works set apart for us to do, is not the defence of the Gospel, but the testimony or witness of it. In this, perhaps, there are 'reasons to believe', but they are derivative of witness, not its foundation.

That is a lot in a few statements. Let me assure you, though, I can very well see your point about 'what I do when I witness'. I lick my chops every time some compelling new 'scientific' truth, historical truth, etc, seems to corroborate my previously held convictions. My critique is as much against myself as any apologetic. Because frankly, I think this whole obsession with defending the Gospel has excused at least myself from feeling the full weight of its witness against me.

pgardella said...


Thank you for your thoughtful response. I apologize for the delay in my own response, as I've been traveling extensively over the last few days.

You are right to try to nail down what we mean by apologetics, as I believe that is the crux of the issue. And I think we have a different definitions, or rather connotations of the word. I view apologetics as part of evangelism (in the full sense of the word), in that my role as an evangelist is to help people to understand the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. God desires to be known, and has revealed himself in creation and in Jesus Christ. Jesus was a historical person, in that he really existed, really taught, really died and then really rose from the grave.

If apologetics is the intellectual practice of defending a certain set of beliefs and it stops there, I would say that, like I believe you are saying, it is then missing the point. To use your example of "he rose from the dead because, look, quantum physics makes it possible", then apologetics is missing the point. I would instead say that the point of apologetics is "he rose from the dead, and THEREFORE, he is who he claimed to be, namely the Son of God/Second Person of the Trinity/Messiah/etc, and should be the object of your worship, praise and study."

So I hold apologetics to be a subset of theology and as an integral part of our witness, which should be proclaimed through everything you said. It is part of the Good News which must be proclaimed to all. It is a way to open the Scriptures to others and to preach to them.

For people deeply embedded with a naturalistic worldview (that is, denying anything supernatural), we need to bring them up to the level of understanding that there is a God, that He created us and wants to be relationship with us. People can't understand what the resurrection means if they don't believe that the resurrection could have ever happened. They can't understand sin if they don't believe there is a moral lawgiver who is the grounding for those truths.

For me, apologetics is a result of the "full weight of the witness against me". (One result! There are many other results as well.) I must share what I know and have been convicted of precisely because the fact that Christ isn't some good story or teacher, but that he is alive and is the King of Kings. I need to know as much as I can about him so that I can share it with others.

I've read and re-read your post, and I think that while we have different definitions of apologetics, that we are both driving to the same result: the witness of the Gospel. Do you agree?

Ian Clausen said...


I think you're most likely correct, we are probably driving toward the same thing. It is usually the case with these kinds of disagreements that the real problem is simply this: the other person wants the last word, i.e. wants to put things his way. I should refuse this prideful tactic, and grant most of what you said. It is, at any rate, a real thorny question. My struggle with apologetics isn't ever to do with things like the 'historicity' of Christ, which I take to be so necessary to the witness as to bug me when people (like Barth, for instance, or Wittgenstein in a lighter moment) downplay its significance. Anyway. 'Enough said. No need to worry yourself about what I think. You've put some good questions and points to me which will make me think more. Thanks for that.

Just keep witnessing with me.