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Evangelical Apologetics

Alister E. McGrath


Bibliotheca Sacra 155: 617 (1998): 3-10.
[Reproduced by permission]

*Alister E. McGrath is Lecturer in Theology, Oxford University, Oxford, England, and Research Professor, Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia.

This is article one in a four-part series "Biblical Models for Apologetics," delivered by the author as the W. H. Griffith Thomas Lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary, February 4-7, 1997.

What are the tasks for which seminary students should be preparing? What issues will they need to address in the next period of Christian history? The answer to these questions is complex, for there are many tasks which students must be prepared to meet. One of these areas in which students and others need to be prepared is apologetics. Therefore this series of articles explores some biblical models of apologetics.


Defining Apologetics

Apologetics can be thought of as having two components. On the one hand it concerns the countering of objections to the Christian faith, and on the other it concerns setting out the attractiveness of the gospel.[1] It thus has a negative and a positive aspect. Negatively it means being able to handle objections to Christianity which one encounters in the media, the shopping mall, and elsewhere. It means being able to give effective responses to hard questions people ask about Christianity. Sometimes those objections are spurious; sometimes they are real problems, which discourage those individuals from coming to a living faith in Christ. Trained Christians can make a difference here, by helping them see that the problem is not as serious as they may have thought.

Positively, apologetics is setting out the full wonder of the gospel of salvation. It is like unpacking a series of wonderful gifts, and marveling at their beauty. Helping people understand the full glory of what the gospel offers often means taking the trouble to

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explain central Christian ideas to people who may recognize the words but not the reality they represent. Words such as "grace" and "redemption" come easily from Christian workers’ lips, but believers need to explain what they mean and what they offer to an increasingly unchurched culture. C. S. Lewis, unquestionably the greatest apologist of his time,[2] made this point memorably.

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. This is very troublesome... but it is essential. It is also of the greatest service to your own thought. 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.[3]

How many Christians can effectively explain the great themes of the gospel to their unchurched friends? Thinking about the full meaning and wonder of the gospel may help many believers become more effective evangelists - and it will deepen their own appreciation for the glory and richness of the gospel itself.

Apologetics is of central importance to modern evangelicalism. One of the major tasks of evangelicals is to proclaim the gospel effectively and faithfully. To take seriously the Great Commission to "make disciples of all the nations" (Matt. 28:19) is to commit oneself to all that he or she can humanly do to ensure that the gospel is preached clearly and cogently. Thankfully many seminaries include evangelism and missions in their teaching programs, seeing these as essential to the preparation of pastors and church leaders.

When visiting certain parts of the United States, it is easy to sense something of the spirit that motivated those who settled here back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Life was a constant battle against the forces of nature, hostile peoples, poverty, and illness. Survival was by no means guaranteed. To keep going, those pioneers had to work hard. Perhaps this kind of "frontier mentality" needs to be rediscovered in Christian

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circles. Christianity has a long history in England. In Oxford a number of churches trace their history back a thousand years or so. That is encouraging; but it also breeds complacency. For centuries most Christian ministers worked on the assumption that England was a Christian nation. They felt their nation needed good pastoring and Christian teaching, and that was all. There was no sense of urgency about preaching the gospel, and certainly no suggestion that the future survival of Christianity was in jeopardy. Apologetics and evangelism were simply not taken seriously. And now England is paying the price for that complacency and negligence, though progress has been made in the last forty years or so. Evangelism needs to be seen as essential to Christianity’s survival and growth. And apologetics is an integral part of that program of evangelism.


Apologetics and Evangelism

This raises the question of how evangelism and apologetics are related. It is helpful to think of apologetics as a kind of pre-evangelism, something that lays the groundwork for evangelism at a later stage. The Greek means "a defense," or "a reason for doing or believing something." The word is used with this meaning in 1 Peter 3:15, in which Christians are urged to give a "reason" () for the hope within them. Apologetics means giving reasons for faith. It means persuading people that Christianity makes sense. Becoming a Christian does not mean hanging up one’s brains, or kissing goodbye to rational thought. Apologetics aims to deal with barriers to faith, giving reasoned and thoughtful replies that allow others to appreciate to the full the attraction and coherence of the Christian faith.[4]

If evangelism is defined as "inviting someone to become a Christian,"[5](5) then apologetics is clearing the ground for that invitation, so that it is more likely to receive a

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positive response. Evangelism may be likened to offering someone bread, and apologetics may be thought of as persuading people that bread is available and that it is good to eat. Apologetics stresses the reasonableness and attractiveness of the Christian faith; evangelism makes the offer of that faith.

One might imagine two different approaches to inviting friends to a dinner party. The first approach stresses that a banquet is scheduled, explains why it will be enjoyable, and reflects on the great time everyone will have. The second approach issues an invitation to that party. It says, "You’re invited." It asks, "Will you come?" Apologetics affirms the truth and attraction of the gospel. Evangelism issues a personal invitation to place faith in Jesus Christ.

As a kind of pre-evangelism, apologetics prepares the way for an invitation to be issued, by helping people understand what Christianity is about and why it is so attractive and meaningful. Then the way is clear for the next stage: presenting an invitation or challenge. The banquet analogy brings out a basic but often overlooked distinction between apologetics and evangelism. Apologetics is nonconfrontational; it is not threatening. But evangelism is confrontational, for it asks individuals to consider whether they are ready to take the step of faith - a step for which apologetics has prepared the way.

However, this is not to suggest that apologetics simply pertains to finding ways of getting people "hooked" on Christianity, while neglecting central themes such as the truth of the gospel. This point has been emphasized by a number of evangelical writers in recent years, including Charles Colson, Os Guinness, and David F. Wells.

Believers run the risk of turning apologetics and evangelism into little more than effective marketing strategies, which fail to honor or recognize the truth and uniqueness of the gospel.[6] One way of avoiding this danger is to focus on the theological foundation of apologetics.


Theology and Apologetics

Theology is essential to effective apologetics in two ways. First, it provides apologists with a network of beliefs and doctrines that enable them to detect weaknesses

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in alternative worldviews and to identify the strengths of the Christian proclamation. This is of major importance to the apologetic strategy developed by Francis Schaeffer, who argued that for theological reasons every non-Christian worldview, if pressed to its limits, would collapse under the pressure of internal contradictions. It is essential to be convinced of the truth of the gospel, even in a postmodern culture that seems to regard truth as unimportant.

Second, theology provides the apologist with a way of bringing the full resources of the gospel to bear on the situation in hand. Theological analysis allows the complex unity of the Christian faith to be viewed in its constituent parts, thus enabling the apologist to decide which of its many aspects may be most effectively deployed. By analyzing the enormously rich Christian truths of the death and resurrection of Christ, their various aspects can be identified and exploited.

In the eighteenth century Isaac Newton made an important discovery at Trinity College, Cambridge. He noticed that a beam of white sunlight, entering through a narrow slit in the shutters of his darkened rooms, could be split into its constituent colors - red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet - by a glass prism.[7] The glass prism did not impose these colors on the white light; it enabled them to be discerned within it. What had hitherto been taken to be a simple color—white—was now shown to be a complex unity of different colors. The prism split the white light into its constituent elements, so that the colors, already there in the beam of light, could be isolated and examined individually. The apparently white light of the sun was shown to consist of many colors in combination. In nature, all were combined; in the laboratory, they could be split.

The same is true of responsible Christian theology, which studies the gospel by its individual themes so they can be examined and appreciated individually. Part of the wonder of the gospel is that it brings together so many incredibly relevant and exciting themes into a glorious unity. So often Christians fail to appreciate its majesty by failing to look at its individual elements.

The message of the cross (1 Cor. 1:18), for example, is unquestionably one of the most important themes in the New Testament. The message of the cross is a unity, but it is a complex unity. By examining its individual components individually the whole message can be better appreciated and understood. Theology does not invent these components; it

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merely uncovers them. They are not the product of some overactive theological imagination. They are already present, awaiting analysis. All that the theologian does is to isolate them so that each can be studied individually. But why bother with this analysis? What purpose does it serve?

The answer is as simple as it is important: Christians need to relate the message to their unsaved friends, to proclaim the message of the cross as effectively as possible. And that means asking what points of contact there are for the gospel. The gospel proclamation must be receptor-oriented. That is, it must be addressed to the opportunities awaiting it among its audience. Just as the science of apologetics is partly concerned with the theological analysis of the Christian proclamation, so the art of apologetics is concerned with the imaginative and creative application of its respective components to its audiences.

To illustrate this process, the cross and resurrection of Christ may be viewed through a theological prism to present a spectrum of images.[8]

The battlefield image. Christ has gained a victory over sin, death, and evil through His own death and resurrection. By faith individuals may share in that victory and claim it as their own.

The court-of-law image. By His death on the cross Christ has obtained forgiveness and pardon for sinners. Those who are guilty can be washed clean of their sin and be justified in the sight of God. They are acquitted of punishment and given the status of a righteous standing before God.

The alienation-relationship image. Sinners are alienated from God. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, as He makes a new relationship possible and available. Just as an alienated husband and wife can be drawn together again through forgiveness and reconciliation, so sinners who are far from God can be drawn close to Him through the death of Christ.

The prison image. Those who are imprisoned by the oppressive forces of evil, sin, and the fear of death can be liberated by the gospel of the cross of Christ. Just as Christ broke free from the prison of death, so believers can, by faith, break free from the bonds of sin and come to life in all its fullness.

The hospital image. Those who are spiritually ill because of sin can be made whole again through the ministrations of the wounded Physician of Calvary. Because of His death and resurrection, Christ can bind up wounds and restore sinners to wholeness and spiritual health.

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Theological analysis does not reduce the message of the cross to a single component. Rather, it aims to discern the various ideas and images that are already there in the message, in the knowledge that one or more of these may prove to be of decisive importance to someone hearing the gospel for the first time. Theological analysis thus identifies apologetic possibilities. For example someone who is conscious of a deep sense of moral guilt, which prevents him or her from drawing near to God, may find meaningful the components of the message of the cross drawn from the court of law. The proclamation of forgiveness could transform that person’s life. But that does not mean that the message of the cross has been reduced to that theme. It simply means that apologists seek to discern what their resources are and to relate them as effectively as possible to the needs of the individual to whom they are ministering.

While all the components of the gospel are relevant to the human situation, individuals have different needs. Someone may have a genuine fear of dying. The gospel needs to be particularized for that person, tailored to his or her situation. The image of victory over the fear of death may well be profoundly important to that individual. Does that mean reducing the gospel? No. It simply means recognizing that person’s particular area of need. This is a point of contact for the gospel. It means asking what aspect of the gospel is of particular relevance to that individual.


A Suggested Approach

Having worked in the field of apologetics for the last ten years, this writer has noticed that insufficient attention has been given to a relevant point in apologetics. Many evangelical apologists base their approaches on the writings of Paul, especially his letter to the Romans. While this comment is not a criticism, their approach does raise a problem. Paul’s epistles were written to Christians, to people who already believed, and who needed instruction, encouragement, and guidance. They were not addressed to interested unbelievers or inquirers. True, Paul had the interests of such people at heart, and several times in his letters he expressed concern about the negative impression the behavior of certain Christians might create for unbelievers. For example 1 Corinthians clearly expresses his concern about what interested unbelievers would think about the gospel if they judged it on the basis of what was happening in public worship at Corinth.

Yet only two portions of the New Testament presuppose that their audiences are interested unbelievers. The Gospels record encounters between Jesus and individuals that

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are clearly of help in seeing how best to present the person and work of Jesus Christ to one’s culture. The Book of Acts records a series of addresses and apologetic approaches adopted by Paul and other prominent early Christians, especially Peter. Here is material that is explicitly apologetic in nature. In a series of addresses and incidents Paul and others directly interacted with the ideas and concerns of a number of major social groups. As the narrative of Acts (and the history of the early church) makes clear, each of these groups came to be represented in the early church. The apologetic approaches illustrated in Acts led to conversions within each of these groups.

These early apologetic approaches offer insights into authentically biblical methods of apologetics, as well as strategies for interacting with specific groups that were of major importance to the development of the early church. The same issues remain as relevant today as they did at the dawn of the Christian era.

The remaining three articles in this series explore the broad apologetic strategies used by Peter and Paul in key speeches in Acts, in which they engaged directly with the concerns of three significant groups: the Jews, the Greeks, and the Romans. In each case the concerns and approaches differ. Yet the same gospel is defended, conveyed, and affirmed, reflecting the apostles’ perception of the most appropriate ways to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to these specific groups.


References

[1] For a more detailed exploration of this distinction, see Alister E. McGrath, Intellectuals Don't Need God and Other Modern Myths (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994).

[2] See the assessment provided by Basil Mitchell, Contemporary Challenges to Christian Apologetics, in How to Play Theological Ping-Pong (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990), 2541, esp. 25.

[3] C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 96.

[4] For some of the approaches on this subject see T. R. Phillips and D. L. Okholm, Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995). The following resources are also important, either in modern or postmodern contexts: Brian Allison, Analytical Studies in Apologetics (Unionville, Ont.: Brice & Bensa, 1990); Colin Brown, Philosophy and the Christian Faith (London: Inter-Varsity, 1969); F. F. Bruce, The Apologetic Defense of the Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1959); David K. Clark and Norman L. Geisler, Apologetics in the New Age: A Christian Critique of Pantheism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990); William Dyrness, Christian Apologetics in a World Community (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983); C. Stephen Evans, The Quest for Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986); Gordon R. Lewis, Testing Christianitys Truth Claims: Approaches to Christian Apologetics (Chicago: Moody, 1976); Richard J. Mouw, Distorted Truth: What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Battle for the Mind (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989); Clark Pinnock, Reason Enough (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1980); and Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976).

[5] Space does not permit discussing the important relationship between the human and the divine in evangelism.

[6] David F. Wells documents the rise of pragmatic and therapeutic concerns within evangelicalism, often at the expense of a concern for truth (No Place for Truth; or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993]).

[7] A. Rupert Hall, Isaac Newton: Adventurer in Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 97-107.

[8] Also see Alister E. McGrath, Making Sense of the Cross (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1992), 45-86.


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