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In the spirit of C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, Alister McGrath's Mere Apologetics seeks to equip readers to engage gracefully and intelligently with the challenges facing the faith today while drawing appropriately on the wisdom of the past. Rather than supplying the fine detail of every apologetic issue in order to win arguments, Mere Apologetics teaches a method that appeals not only to the mind but also to the heart and the imagination. This highly accessible, easy-to-read book is perfect for pastors, teachers, students, and lay people who want to speak clearly and lovingly to the issues that confront people of faith today.
What Is Apologetics?
The Great Commission gives every Christian the privilege and responsibility of preaching the Good News until the end of history: "Go and make disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28:18–20 NIV). Every Christian alive today is linked, through a complex chain of historical events, with this pivotal moment. Each of us has a family tree of faith reaching back into the mists of time. Down the ages, like runners in a great relay race of history, others have passed this Good News from one generation to another. And now the baton has been handed to us. It's our turn. We have been entrusted with passing on the Good News to those around and beyond us.
It is an exciting thought. For a start, it helps us to see how we fit into a bigger picture. Yet for many it is also a rather challenging thought. It seems too big a demand. Are we really up for this? How can we cope with such a weighty responsibility? It is important to realize that Christians have always felt overwhelmed by the challenges of passing on our faith. We feel that we lack the wisdom, insight, and strength to do this—and we are right to feel so. But we must appreciate that God knows us, exactly as we are (Ps. 139). He knows our deepest secrets, our strengths, and our weaknesses. And God is able to work in us and through us to speak to the world for which Christ died.
One of the great themes of the Christian Bible is that, whenever God asks us to do something for him, he gives us the gifts we need to do it. Knowing us for what we are, he equips us for what he wants us to do. The Great Commission includes both a command and a promise. The risen Christ's command to his disciples is bold and challenging: "Go and make disciples of all nations" (v. 19 NIV). His promise to those disciples is equally reassuring and encouraging: "Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (v. 20 NIV). It is a deeply comforting thought. We are not on our own. The risen Christ stands by us and with us, as we do our best to hand on and hand over the Good News of who Christ is and what he has done for us.
Yet knowing that we are accompanied and strengthened in our journey of faith by the risen Christ does not solve the many questions we must face and explore as we commend and proclaim the gospel. How can anyone do justice to the excitement, joy, and wonder of the Christian gospel? Time and time again, we find ourselves unable to express its richness adequately in words. The reality of God and the gospel always exceeds our ability to express it. How can we respond effectively to the questions our culture is asking about God, or the objections it raises to faith? How can we find vivid, faithful, and dynamic ways of explaining and expressing the gospel, allowing it to connect with the hopes and fears of those around us?
How can Christians explain their faith in terms that make sense to people outside the church? How can we counter misunderstandings or misrepresentations of the Christian faith? How can we communicate the truth, attractiveness, and joy of the Christian gospel to our culture? These are questions that have been addressed by Christians since the time of the New Testament. Traditionally, this is known as the discipline of apologetics—the subject of this book.
So what is apologetics? Augustine of Hippo (354–430), one of the Christian church's greatest theologians, is widely admired as a biblical interpreter, a preacher, and an expositor of the grace of God. One of his most significant contributions to the development of Christian theology is his reflections on the doctrine of the Trinity. As readers will know, this doctrine often causes difficulties for people. Augustine, however, had his own problem with the formula "three persons, one God." Why, he complained, did Christians use the word "person" here? It just wasn't helpful. Surely there had to be a better word to use. In the end, Augustine came to the conclusion that there probably wasn't, and the church would just have to keep on using the word "person" in this way.
I often feel like that when using the term "apologetics." It doesn't seem to be a very helpful word. For most people it suggests the idea of "saying you're sorry." Now I am sure there is much that the Christian church needs to say it's sorry about. But that's not really what apologetics is all about. As if that's not enough, the word "apologetics" sounds as if it's plural—but it's really singular (like "scissors"). Yet while Christian writers have sought alternative terms down the ages, none really seems to have caught on. We're just going to have to keep on using "apologetics." But if we can't change the word, we can make sure we understand its richness of meaning.
The term "apologetics" makes a lot more sense when we consider the meaning of the Greek word on which it is based—apologia. An apologia is a "defense," a reasoned case proving the innocence of an accused person in court, or a demonstration of the correctness of an argument or belief. We find this term used in 1 Peter 3:15, which many see as a classic biblical statement of the importance of apologetics:
In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer [apologia] to everyone who asks you to give the reason [logos] for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (NIV)
It is an important text, worth reading in its full context. The first letter of Peter is addressed to Christians in the region of the Roman Empire known as Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Peter offers them reassurance and comfort as they face the threat of persecution. He encourages them to engage their critics and questioners by explaining the basis and content of their faith with gentleness and respect.
Peter clearly assumes that Christian ideas are being misunderstood or misrepresented, and urges his readers to set the record straight—but to do so graciously and considerately. For Peter, apologetics is about defending the truth with gentleness and respect. The object of apologetics is not to antagonize or humiliate those outside the church, but to help open their eyes to the reality, reliability, and relevance of the Christian faith. There must be no mismatch or contradiction between the message that is proclaimed and the tone of the messenger's proclamation. We must be winsome, generous, and gracious. If the gospel is to cause difficulty, it must be on account of its intrinsic nature and content, not the manner in which it is proclaimed. It is one thing for the gospel to give offense; it is quite another for its defenders to cause offense by unwise choice of language or an aggressive and dismissive attitude toward outsiders.
Christians have taken this advice seriously from the earliest days of the church. The New Testament itself contains several important passages—mostly in the Acts of the Apostles—that explain, commend, and defend the Christian faith to a variety of audiences. For example, Peter's famous sermon on the day of Pentecost argues that Jesus of Nazareth is the culmination of the hopes of Israel (Acts 2). Paul's equally famous sermon to the philosophers of Athens argues that Jesus of Nazareth is the culmination of the long human quest for wisdom (Acts 17).
This engagement continued throughout the history of the church. Early Christian writers were especially concerned to engage Platonism. How could they communicate the truth and power of the gospel to an audience used to thinking in Platonic ways? This approach involved the identification of both possibilities and challenges, leading to the exploitation of those possibilities and the neutralization of those challenges. Yet Platonism generally fell out of fashion in the early Middle Ages. Aristotle became the philosopher of choice in most western universities from the thirteenth century until the early sixteenth century. Once more, Christian apologists rose to this challenge. They identified the challenges raised by Aristotelianism—such as its belief in the eternity of the world. And they also identified the openings it created for faith. That task continues today, as we face new intellectual and cultural challenges and opportunities. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenges arising from cultural changes—and so fail to see the opportunities they offer.
The Basic Themes of Christian Apologetics
Before exploring these possibilities, we need to think a little more about the nature of apologetics. What issues does it engage? How does it help us proclaim and communicate the gospel? We could summarize the three tasks faced by apologists of the past and present under three main headings: defending, commending, and translating.
Here, the apologist sets out to find the barriers to faith. Have they arisen through misunderstandings or misrepresentations? If so, these need to be corrected. Have they arisen because of a genuine difficulty over Christian truth claims? If so, these need to be addressed. It is important to note that defense is generally a reactive strategy. Someone comes up with a concern; we are obliged to respond to it. Happily, there are excellent responses that can be made, and the apologist needs to know and understand these. Where honest questions are sincerely asked, honest answers must be powerfully yet graciously given.
Yet everyone has different questions, concerns, and anxieties. As a result, the apologist needs to know her audience. What are the difficulties people experience with the Christian gospel? One of the first things that the apologist learns when he does apologetics—as opposed to just reading books about it—is that audiences vary enormously. Each person has his or her own specific difficulties about faith and must not be reduced to a generalized stereotype.
These difficulties are often intellectual, concerning questions about the evidential basis for faith or some core Christian doctrines. But it is important to realize that not all of these difficulties fall into this category. Some are much deeper concerns, and are not so much about problems with rational understanding as about problems with existential commitment. French apologist Blaise Pascal (1623–62) once perceptively commented: "The heart has its reasons, which reason knows nothing about." Apologetics aims to identify these barriers to faith, whatever their nature, and offer responses that help to overcome them.
Apologetics thus encourages Christians to develop a "discipleship of the mind." Before we can answer the questions others ask us about our faith, we need to have answered them for ourselves. Christ calls on his followers to love God with all their heart, with all their soul, and with all their mind (Matt. 22:37). Paul also speaks about the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2) as part of the process of transforming our lives. To be a Christian is to think about our faith, beginning to forge answers to our own questions. Apologetics is about going further and deeper into the Christian faith, discovering its riches. It's good for our own appreciation of the richness and reasonableness of our faith. But, perhaps just as importantly, it enables us to deal with the questions that others have.
It is also important to appreciate that it is not just people outside the church who are asking questions about faith. Many Christians also experience difficulties with their faith and find themselves looking for explanations or approaches that will help them sustain it. While the primary focus of apologetics may indeed be culture at large, we must never forget that many Christians need help with their faith. Why does God allow suffering? How can I make sense of the Trinity? Will my pets go to heaven when they die? These are all apologetic questions familiar to any pastor. And they need to be answered. Happily, there are indeed answers that are deeply rooted in the long Christian tradition of engaging Scripture.
It is important for Christians to show that they understand these concerns, and don't see them simply as arguments to be lightly and easily dismissed. We need to deal with them sensitively and compassionately, entering into the mind of the person who finds them a problem. Why is it a problem? What have you seen that they haven't? How can you help them see things in a new way that either neutralizes the problem or makes it clear this is a problem they're already well used to in other areas of life? It is important not to be dismissive, but gracious and sympathetic. Apologetics is as much about our personal attitudes and character as it is about our arguments and analysis. You can defend the gospel without being defensive in your attitude.
Here, the apologist sets out to allow the truth and relevance of the gospel to be appreciated by the audience. The audience may be a single person or a large group of people. In each case, the apologist will try to allow the full wonder and brilliance of the Christian faith to be understood and appreciated. The gospel does not need to be made relevant to these audiences. The question is how we help the audience grasp this relevance—for example, by using helpful illustrations, analogies, or stories that allow them to connect with it.
Apologetics thus has a strongly positive dimension—setting out the full attractiveness of Jesus Christ so that those outside the faith can begin to grasp why he merits such serious consideration. Christ himself once compared the kingdom of heaven to a pearl of great price: "The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it" (Matt. 13:45–46 NIV). The merchant knew about pearls, and he could see that this particular pearl was so beautiful and valuable it was worth giving up everything so he could possess it.
As we shall see, one classic way of doing this is to show that Christianity is rationally compelling. It makes better sense of things than its rivals. Yet it is vitally important not to limit the appeal of the gospel to human reason. What of the human heart? Time after time, the Gospels tell us people were drawn to Jesus of Nazareth because they realized he could transform their lives. While arguments are important in apologetics, they have their limits. Many are attracted to the Christian faith today because of their belief that it will change their lives. Their criterion of validation is not so much "Is this true?" but "Will this work?"
Our task is to help people realize that the Christian faith is so exciting and wonderful that nothing else can compare to it. This means helping people grasp the attractiveness of the faith. Theology allows us to identify and appreciate the individual elements of the Christian faith. It is like someone opening a treasure chest and holding up jewels, pearls, and precious metals, one by one, so that each may be seen individually and appreciated. It is like holding a diamond up to the light, so that each of its facets scintillates, allowing its beauty and glory to be appreciated.
Here, the apologist recognizes that many of the core ideas and themes of the Christian faith are likely to be unfamiliar to many audiences. They need to be explained using familiar or accessible images, terms, or stories. C. S. Lewis is rightly regarded as a master of this skill, and his estimation of its importance must be taken to heart:
We must learn the language of our audience. And let me say at the outset that it is no use laying down a priori what the "plain man" does or does not understand. You have to find out by experience.... You must translate every bit of your theology into the vernacular.... I have come to the conclusion that if you cannot translate your own thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts are confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood your own meaning.
The issue here is about how we faithfully and effectively communicate the Christian faith to a culture that may not understand traditional Christian terms or concepts. We need to be able to set out and explain the deep attraction of the Christian gospel for our culture, using language and images it can access. It is no accident that Christ used parables to teach about the kingdom of God. He used language and imagery already familiar to the rural Palestinian culture of his age to communicate deeper spiritual truths.
Excerpted from Mere Apologetics by Alister E. McGrath Copyright © 2012 by Alister E. McGrath. Excerpted by permission of Baker Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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