I doubt if there has ever been a time when it has been as important to know how to communicate our faith in Jesus Christ. We live in days when claiming that Jesus is unique is not ‘PC’ and all sortsofaccusations and recriminations can follow. There is no foolproof way of sharing without such reactions but there are some clear guidelines that we can follow to help us.
The problem, for many, is that we need to spend some time in study, before the Lord, to understand what we should and should not do. So many of us want instant answers but there are none. We need, as Paul exhorted Timothy, to study to show ourselves diligent.
In 2004 we produced the book, Should Christians Apologise, especially designed to help Christians to be able to communicate their faith. We reproduce some of the material from the book to give you a flavour of what you can learn and then we will make a very special once-off offer for you and your friends to be able to get started in this vital work.
The apostle Peter makes it clear however, in 1 Peter 3:15, that each of us should be ready to give an answer for our faith to anyone who may ask. Apologetics is not the sole preserve of professionals and academics, it is uniquely useful for us all. No sooner do our work colleagues, families and friends become aware of our faith than we will be subjected to a variety of questions. Some of these may be intended to put us in our place or catch us out, but many stem from a deep searching for answers to troubling issues. A familiarity with apologetics will enable us to make connection with those around us; it will help us in a very practical way to give an honest and informed reply to their questions, misunderstandings and criticisms. Good apologetics is never disconnected from real people and real lives.
Our reluctance to engage with questions and critics is, of course, understandable. For one thing questions come in such diversity and volume it is difficult to answer them all. Further, the material may not be familiar to us or maybe we are unsure about how we are best to answer the questions posed. The bottom line, however, is that God has placed us where we are and we have the responsibility to be ready (and able) to answer the questions and criticisms that come our way.
Questions about faith come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, ranging from deep philosophical issues to a hundred and one perennial questions. Some of the questions people ask are often about the resurrection of Christ, or the existence of God, or the reliability of the Bible. Then there are the host of red herrings that are raised from time to time: What about Cain’s wife? What happened to the fish during the Flood? If God can do anything, can He make a rock so big that He could not pick it up? From time to time incidents in the news or scientific findings may bring some issues more to the fore for a time. The tragic events of September 11th 2001 in New York understandably raised questions about God, suffering and evil.
We should not overlook the fact that each generation faces its own particular apologetic issues. During the first two centuries AD the apologetic issues facing the Church centred around charges of cannibalism, disloyalty and incest, which had been levelled against the Church. In the Middle Ages the key apologetic issues related to philosophical questions about God’s existence. The development of science and evolutionary theory in the C. 19th led to great debates about the reliability of the Bible. There is a dynamic dimension to apologetics, each generation grapples with new apologetic issues. The question we must ask ourselves today is what issues are relevant to our generation? What questions are being raised in the C.2 1st and how are we to answer them? It seems to me that the great issue people face today is the question of truth, reality and experience.
In the New Testament the word “apology” occurs eight times, in each case the writer uses the word in the context of making a defence. In Acts 21 and 22, for example, we find that Paul has been arrested during a visit to the Temple in Jerusalem. As he is being escorted out of the temple precincts by an armed guard a mob gathers and then, in Acts 22:1, we find Paul turning and addressing the mob, setting out his defence (apologia). In addition to the use of apologia in the New Testament we should also bear in mind that several New Testament letters have an apologetic component. In Colossians, for example, Paul writes to correct the Colossian heresy, the belief in a hierarchy of angels and denial of the true deity of Christ. Not only does he restate essential Christian doctrine he also corrects error. Likewise, in Galatians Paul writes to a Church being torn apart by controversy over whether Christians needed to add works to their faith in order to secure salvation. Paul corrects the error and builds a thorough-going doctrine. Apologetics has the dual function of making a defence against the critics of the faith on the one hand and refuting false ideas on the other.
Perhaps the two most well known New Testament passages that link with the subject of apologetics are Acts 17 and 1 Peter 3:15. At this point it would be useful to spend a few moments carefully looking at the principles contained in each passage. In Acts 17 we find Paul waiting for the arrival of his co-workers. Whilst in this famous city, Paul takes a long and careful look around. What he saw disturbed and provoked him greatly. At the time Athens was well past its former glory as a political and economic centre. Populated by around 30,000 people it was now a small learning and cultural centre. The inhabitants of the city were evidently both religious and superstitious, because they had filled their city with statues and altars of many gods. It was said at the time that it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens. If there were 30,000 people there just imagine how many statues of gods there were!
One altar was unique inasmuch as it was dedicated to the unknown god. The story goes that the city was hit by a terrible plague and the citizens determined that it had been caused by them offending one of the gods. The problem was which one, there were so many. The cities leaders came up with a plan, they would allow a herd of sheep to roam through the city, at whichever they stopped and grazed around – then this would be the god they had offended. The plan seemed to be a good one, until they noticed that the sheep settled and then grazed on a patch of ground well away from any of the altars. They concluded that the offended god must be one that they did not know and so raised an altar.
Returning to Paul, incensed and disturbed he began to preach the gospel in the city, first of all in the synagogue and then in the market place. He was eventually invited to address the gathered academics on Mars hill. As we begin to think through an approach to apologetics I am sure that we will find his approach is informative.
First we should note that Paul took time to observe the society into which he was ministering. He took a long, careful and calculated look at the city and its people. He referred to their interest in religion (v22), he quoted their poets (v28), and drew attention to the altar to the unknown God. Paul used ideas and concepts with which they were familiar. He managed to put his finger on their pulse, and communicated with ideas and language that they could understand. In the same way the challenge of apologetics today is to see where people are coming from, and take care about the words and concepts we use to answer their questions. It is so easy to lapse into safe b
ut almost unintelligible thoughts and ideas. The good apologist will understand their society and the issues that are becoming important.
Second, Paul was stirred with a passion to share the gospel, to engage the people to answer their deepest questions. Paul stirred up an interest and made a connection by speaking about the unknown god. Athens was a city in the know, they were renowned for their capacity and preoccupation for the new and novel. They thirsted to have their curiosity quenched. Paul knew this and hooked them by offering to speak about something they were eager to know, just who was this unknown God? The lesson here is important, we need to be patient and raise people’s curiosity. The good apologist will speak directly to the great issues and questions of people’s lives. Third, Paul used a deliberate structure. His presentation followed a logical and well thought out structure. He built an argument beginning where his audience were and leading them to the facts about Christ. One of the great difficulties we face with apologetics is that it can become very technical very quickly; we need to carefully prepare, think through our material and introduce it gradually. “Blinding people with science,” may ease the pressure from us but will achieve little. There is no point in “winning an argument yet losing a soul.” When dealing with the questions and issues people have it is important that we carefully construct our argument, beginning with the familiar and building from a solid base. Further, questions are fired at us for all sorts of motives. Sometimes an enquirer has a genuine problem which they need help with. On occasions, however, the enquirer may just be trying to wind us up. It is important, therefore, to discern which of these types of question is being asked.
THE KEY TEXT
1 Peter 3:15 is probably the most well known and classic New Testament Apologetic text, and deserves careful study because it sets out what apologetics is and how we should go about the apologetic task
Peter was writing to a church under pressure, scattered and suffering he writes to encourage them to carry on in the faith. The apostle Peter challenges his readers to always be prepared to give an answer.
“… always being ready to make a defense to every one who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence”
Here Peter provides us with some fairly precise instructions about the task of apologetics. First let us think through those significant words always’ and ‘every one.’ Peter is indicating here that we all have a responsibility for explaining our faith; remember above we noted that apologetics is not the sole preserve of the academic or the professional. Each Christian has an apologetic task, each of us is uniquely positioned in life to reach out to those with which we are in daily contact. The words ‘always’ and ‘every one’ suggests that we should be prepared and ready to explain not just what we believe but also why we believe it. It is tempting to be lazy and just hope that we will be able to answer or perhaps bluff any questions asked. Here however, Peter is asking us to be prepared and even looking for opportunities.
Second, we should not overlook the phrase “hope that is in you.” Peter is anticipating that the people we meet will be provoked or encouraged to ask us about our faith because of the life we live. It should be evident in our lives. We often think of hope as being an inner quality, here Peter assumes that this inner quality will work itself out into our daily lives. That it will arouse curiosity and a confidence to be able to ask us questions. Our lives should be attention-grabbing and attractive!
Third, Peter notes that we should be ready to answer anyone who asks. Peter sees apologetics taking place in the context of a dialogue, the enquirer asking and the Christian replying. When asked a question or faced with a criticism it is so easy to just keep on talking. Explaining ideas, bringing out fact after fact, and just keeping on talking until the enquirer s resistance fails. The best approach to apologetics, however, is dialogue. Here the apologist asks questions, probes, checks understanding, looks for a response and searches for new information.
Fourth, Peter is also concerned about our attitude and the way in which we engage in discussion. He instructs us to be respectful and gentle. Very often in life it is not just what we say, but the manner in which we say things. As Christ’s representatives it is our responsibility to treat enquirers compassionately, even if they push us, become argumentative and ask annoying questions! Our attitude in replying should be respectful and gentle. There is no point engaging in a full blown argument, this would achieve nothing. Rather, we are to be sensitive and cautious, treating the enquirer with dignity. In practical terms this means that we should take care how we answer questions, taking care not to belittle or talk down to the enquirer and certainly not becoming argumentative.
SIMPLE DEFINITION – HIDDEN COMPLEXITY
Apologetics has been commonly and simply defined as “the defence of the faith.” Behind this simple definition, however, we find a hidden complexity. Not just concerning the subject matter of apologetics but also in relation to the methodology and aims of apologetics. What are we trying to achieve and how should we go about it? We will be addressing these issues in some depth in the chapters that follow.
Apologetics aims at providing a framework through which we can explain our reasons for faith and deliver a sound, well-reasoned and factual account of our reason for belief. In undertaking the apologetic task we should be aware that we are engaging in a process. This process begins as we detect our society and the underlying questions and issues that flow through our current world, when we note the concerns and queries that people are developing. This will require us to observe and think through and try to make sense of the society we live in. The media and casual conversations provide excellent windows into the questions and thought processes of society. Next we need to connect and make contact. This will mean more than just being physically present alongside enquirers. It will mean being able to communicate effectively, using language and ideas, that are easily understood, words that connect and communicate.
Having developed a familiarity with our society and connected both physically and mentally with people, we now need to defend. Once folk find out about our faith, sooner or later a casual conversation or incident on the news will give them opportunity to raise an issue. On occasions this may well be a simple “tester question,” but eventually the questions they really want answering will be raised. In order to give an answer we will need to ensure our attitude is right and that we know our material. This will, of course, take some preparation and will most likely involve patience. Finally, our reply may well give information or clarify a point and put the enquirers mind at ease. Often, however, the aim of apologetics is to challenge his assumptions and ask him to think again, to doubt his preconceptions.- (Taken from pp.7-14).