XFiles Weekend: What is apologetics?

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 1: “What is apologetics?”)

Today we begin our look at On Guard, by Dr. William Lane Craig. Dr. Craig, as we saw last week, is widely regarded as being “among the very best defenders of Christianity in this generation.” A man well-trained in the subject matter, with double doctorates (in theology and philosophy), Dr. Craig is well situated to give Christianity the very best defense it can possibly receive from mortal men. And that, in fact, is precisely the goal he intends to accomplish in On Guard.

That makes this book particularly well-suited for our discussion, because we can address Dr. Craig’s arguments with the confidence that they reflect genuine and authoritative Christian positions. But this book is much more than that. As I’ve mentioned before, God does not show up in real life, and therefore there is nothing that can be known about Him by direct observation. In His absence, it’s up to men like Dr. Craig to review and organize and update the doctrines men have written down in the past: things men have said about God and speculated about God and attributed to God. The teachings of men, in short, are the source of our knowledge about God (or at least the Christian one).

What Dr. Craig does, like other notable theologians and apologists over the years, is to take the arguments men have made in the past, and improve them by trying to make them more coherent, as well as incorporating new material (like the Big Bang theory) that earlier theologians were unaware of. In other words, in God’s absence, Dr. Craig is not only an expert witness about Christian theology, he is one of the sources of modern Christian faith. Through his great training and advanced intellect, he’s not just defending Christianity, he’s playing a significant role in creating it.

Let’s get started, shall we?

Dr. Craig starts, mildly enough, with a discussion of what “apologetics” is. He’s concerned that a number of believers think that apologetics means telling people you’re sorry you’re a Christian. “One fine Southern lady, upon hearing that I teach Christian apologetics, remarked indignantly, ‘I’ll never apologize for my faith!'” So he begins by explaining that “apologia” is a Greek word meaning a defense, as in a courtroom argument before a judge. Then he quotes the Biblical justification for the field of apologetics.

The Bible actually commands us to have such a case ready to give to any unbeliever who wants to know why we believe what we do… First Peter 3:15 says, “Always be prepared to make a defense [apologia] to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (author’s translation).

(Note: the parentheticals “[apologia]” and “(author’s translation)” in the above are Dr. Craig’s.) There’s a couple interesting things here. One is the pecking order: the audience, typified by the “fine Southern lady,” is ignorant, whereas Doctor (squared) Craig not only knows the Bible, he does his own translations. Impressive, isn’t it? And truth to tell, this probably isn’t all that unfair. Dr. Craig is certainly more well-educated than the vast majority of his audience, and probably smarter than a lot of them as well.

But the other interesting thing is this: he has a Bible verse to quote. Apologetics, the all-too-human work of men thinking up reasons for people to believe, is a Christian chore that goes all the way back to New Testament times. Christians are told that their faith requires a defense, like the defense a lawyer gives his client (even when he’s not actually innocent). From the very beginning, Christianity has depended on the persuasive arguments of men, to the point that the apostles made it every Christian’s duty to work on coming up with good ones.

As I mentioned last week, you don’t find this in other fields of study. Geology professors do not assign graduate students the task of trying to prepare a courtroom-style defense for believing in the existence of rocks, nor doctors for pain, nor economists for recessions. But that’s because these other fields are fortunate enough to study phenomena that can actually be observed in real life. Christians aren’t so fortunate. Their God does not show up in real life, and the best they can do is superstitiously give Him credit for things He has no observable connection to. Ergo, apologetics. It’s not just an esoteric specialty within the field of theology, it’s a human effort that is essential to the survival of the faith, making it something every Christian needs to help with.

Dr. Craig knows this, at some level. It’s why he has written this book. As we get deeper into On Guard, we’ll find him detailing and emphasizing all the negative consequences that result from God’s failure to show up in real life, except he naturally won’t call it “the consequences of God’s absence,” he’s going to call it “the consequences of a lack of successful apologetics.” Everything really depends, you see, on the human effort, because God is not here to make a contribution. It is up to the works of men to create faith in God, in His absence, and so Christians need to be prepared to participate in that work. Hence the book.

He does take some time to consider the alternative, though.

Some people think that apologetics is unbiblical. They say that you should just preach the gospel and let the Holy Spirit do His work! But I think that the example of Jesus and the apostles affirms the value of apologetics. Jesus appealed to miracles and to fulfilled prophecy to prove that His claims were true (Luke 24:25-27; John 14:11). What about the apostles? In dealing with other Jews, they used fulfilled prophecy, Jesus’ miracles, and especially Jesus’ resurrection to prove that He was the Messiah…By means of these arguments the apostles sought to show their fellow Jews that Christianity is true…

So it’s clear that both Jesus and the apostles were not afraid to give evidence for the truth of what they proclaimed. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t trust the Holy Spirit to bring people to God. Rather they trusted the Holy Spirit to use their arguments and evidence to bring people to God.

And therein lies the rub. If God would only show up in real life, He would be the evidence that the apologist would point to. But that’s not what actually happens in real life. If there were a Holy Spirit Who could lead people to Jesus by Himself, He would be the evidence that Christianity is true. But that’s not how it works in real life. In real life, it’s up to men to do the work of persuading. If and when their efforts are successful, then and only then does the Holy Spirit step into the picture, to take the credit for what men’s works have produced. (Just kidding: He doesn’t show up to take the credit of course–men have to give it to Him, in His absence.)

Dr. Craig is on very shaky ground: the goal of apologetics is to provide undeniable evidence that God exists, but if it is indeed possible for men to acquire such evidence, it’s very difficult to explain why God Himself would not be that evidence. Somehow, Dr. Craig must show both that he has the evidence he claims to have, while showing at the same time that there is some very good reason why he cannot possibly have it. That’s pretty hard to rationalize, though not impossible, provided you’re willing at some point to throw reason out the window and resort to faith alone. But once you do that, you’ve jumped into the same camp as the people who are arguing that apologetics is unbiblical and believers should just let the Holy Spirit do His work!

Next week, Dr. Craig will begin to explain to us why it is so important for believers to do the work of creating reasons for men to believe. It is something of a wild ride, and I must say it somewhat lowered my opinion of William Lane Craig.

Stay tuned.

2 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: What is apologetics?”

  1. Korou Says:

    I read the first line of the post and thought, “Hooray!”
    This sounds like a treat. Great start!

  2. Arthur Says:

    Some people think that apologetics is unbiblical. They say that you should just preach the gospel and let the Holy Spirit do His work!

    But gosh, if they were serious about that, they’d have to consider not preaching the gospel at all, and just letting the Holy Spirit do His work. And that’s just silly! Clearly Jesus didn’t want people to be left alone.


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