Likely, those familiar with the realm of apologetics within the Christian worldview have anticipated the general thrust of what will follow here. Those unfamiliar with the term may be assured from the start that this is not a summons to say sorry from the pulpit; they have confused apologetics with apologizing. In actuality, some dictionaries will recognize two definitions of the word apologize. For example, Dictionary.com offers these:
1. to offer an apology or excuse for some fault, insult, failure, or injury.
2. to make a formal defense in speech or writing
For the context of this discussion, apologetics will be more in line with the second definition. Thus, it is this article’s intent to make a formal defense in writing, for making a formal defense in speech (or preaching). What follows is an appeal for the preacher to continue in the spirit and tradition of Paul, who participated “…in the defense (apologia) and confirmation of the gospel” (
Throughout Church history, many theologians and philosophers have offered reasons for believing the truth claims of Christianity. These apologists have found it insufficient simply to declare what the Bible says and have insisted on explaining why a person ought to believe what the Bible says. In addition to proclaiming that God exists, they have offered reasons for believing God exists. From the earliest preaching of the Christian church, Peter did not simply shout, “this Jesus God raised up again,” but offered further, “…to which we are all witnesses” (
Some readers may well note the rather obvious problem that today, there aren’t exactly any eye witnesses to the resurrection hanging around. Surely this method of persuasion is obsolete, they may object. Yet while it is certainly true that a contemporary preacher cannot invite an eye witness onto the platform for an interview, notice that in general, people today share with the early church a very similar account of why a person ought to believe something. Just as contemporary people can appreciate a documentary that provides support for its conclusion, and just as an honest jury needs evidence in order to reach a verdict, the early proclaimers of the gospel understood they ought to give reasons for believing Jesus was who He said he was. Thus, Jesus was described as “a man attested to you by God with miracles, wonders and signs, which God performed through Him in your midst” (
Again, one might interject that in the absence of a miraculous event today, apologetic preaching has no foundation, but setting this criticism aside for the time being, notice the logic is simple: If Jesus makes a claim, and the claim is verified by a miraculous sign, then the claim is true. Most prominently, for the apostles, the miraculous and vindictive resurrection event functioned as a compelling bedrock for all Christian belief. Paul, for instance, described it as an event, without which apostolic preaching and faith are in vain (
It already has been shown that Jesus and the apostles seem to have been in the habit of defending the message they proclaimed. Also consider many Old Testament characters and writings were similar. Take for example what might be described as negative apologetics found in the writings of Isaiah…rather than make a positive case for Yahweh, Isaiah sought to expose the foolishness of idolatrous pagan nations, the folly of their craftsman. In chapter 44, he points out that they cut down trees and divide up the lumber, using one portion as fuel to cook supper and the other to craft an idol. “No one recalls,” writes Isaiah, “nor is there knowledge or understanding to say, ‘I have burned half of it in the fire…then I make the rest of it into an abomination, I fall down before a block of wood!'” (
Another Old Testament example may be found in the test of a prophet that appears in chapter eighteen of Deuteronomy. Here, Moses addresses the people: “You may say in your heart, ‘How will we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’ When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him” (
Here, the Israelites are entreated to regard as presumptuous, any supposed word from the Lord that is not verified. In this case, prophecies about a future event seem to be in mind, thus, fulfillment of the prophecy functions as appropriate evidence that God has indeed spoken. A case might even be made from this passage that it is irresponsible to believe a supposed word from the Lord when the speaker has not given a reason to believe.
Finally, consider the interesting conversation that takes place when God calls Moses to lead Israel out of bondage in Egypt. By the flickering light of the burning bush, a trembling Moses asks God, “What if they will not believe me or listen to what I say? For they may say, ‘The Lord has not appeared to you'” (
From these examples, it seems clear that apologetics is not a fad. The offering of defenses for beliefs is not simply a short-lived human contrivance of modernity. Instead, it appears God Himself understands and values the importance of providing people with adequate reasons for believing Him.
Here then, we turn to address the concern raised earlier: How can today’s preacher make an apologetic appeal in the absence of any miracles? After all, the norm in Scripture was to provide evidence in the form of a miracle that God had spoken. In response to this challenge, it first should be noted there are other ways to defend an idea. As we have seen, Isaiah’s approach to negative apologetics was based entirely on reason and common sense (If a man creates something with his hands, it cannot in any meaningful sense be considered God).
As a second response, in a sense, most of classical and evidential apologetics are based on miracles, specifically the miracle of creation and the miracle of the resurrection. Thus, while the apologetic task today cannot be the simple declaration: “I have witnessed the resurrection,” the preacher can offer reasons for believing the earliest witnesses to the resurrection were reliable. Of course, obviously no preacher has witnessed creation itself, but it is possible to offer evidence of design in the universe in order to demonstrate something such as the Judeo-Christian God exists. In this way, while the form of apologetic preaching must be somewhat different than in the early church, the principle is the same as it always has been: Ideas ought to be defended. Finally, notice that any attempt to refute this principle ultimately is self-defeating. After all, how does one defend the idea that ideas ought not be defended?
So much could be said here about the various arguments for God’s existence, for the resurrection, as well as for the reliability of the New Testament. Instead, readers are invited to consult far more capable works by Christian thinkers such as William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, C.S. Lewis and many others who believe ideas ought to be defended (particularly, those which are most important to us). Remember the purpose of this article is not to defend Christianity, but to defend the concept of defending Christianity. Thus, it will be up to the individual preacher (if this article is persuasive) to do some homework, consider the foundations for Christian belief, and wrestle with how apologetics might be incorporated into the ministry of preaching. (We are not suggesting every sermon must include a defense of the existence of God, the resurrection or some such notion; this would be a gross overemphasis).
Interestingly enough, some preachers—including some who are aware of the defenses available for Christian belief—have chosen to reject apologetics in their preaching for theological reasons. William Willimon, for example, in Proclamation and Theology advocates what he calls a cruciform faith. He writes:
“A cruciform faith requires a peculiar way of preaching that is foolishness to the world. When the speaker points to Jesus hanging helplessly on the cross and says ‘Jesus Christ is Lord!’ the predictable audience reaction is, ‘Why? How?’ Then the speaker is tempted to offer assorted evidence for such a patently ridiculous claim…Classical rhetoric said that there were three means of persuasion of an audience: reason, emotions and the character of the speaker…When asked, ‘What is your evidence for your claim?’ Paul simply responds, ‘the Cross.’ What else can he say?” (Willimon 2005, 68-69).
As a response, it first should be noted that in the passage Willimon cites (
Other examples could be offered of well-known Christian thinkers who have rejected the entire project of attempting to defend Christian belief within academia, as well as from the pulpit. How can this rejection be supported?
Proponents of this essentially anti-apologetic view, have appealed to a number of proof texts in order to support the idea that Christian belief ought not be supported rationally (
For example, take Jesus’ words to Thomas at the end of John’s Gospel: “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (
First, it should be observed that what Thomas demanded in this account was not simply evidence, but excessive evidence. As apologist, J.P. Holding has pointed out: In reality, Thomas had more than sufficient evidence—the testimony of at least 11 men whom he had gotten to know intimately during at least the prior three years, plus personal experience of the miraculous powers of Jesus, as well as an empty tomb (Tekton 2013). With all of this in mind, Thomas’ standards seem rather overly skeptical: “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (
Second, it should noted that as excessive as Thomas’ request was, Jesus did not deny him: “…He said to Thomas, ‘Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing” (
Third, if John has in mind to communicate in verse 29 the idea that good faith believes in the absence of evidence, why, in the very next verses, the close of his gospel, does he write: “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so you may believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (
Thus, upon further examination, it becomes clear John 20:29 does not promote the idea that preachers should leave Christian truth claims unsupported. It cannot mean this if John’s Gospel and, indeed, all of Scripture, are to be taken coherently, as whole. As was mentioned, John 20:29 is only one of several passages used to support the idea that faith ought not rest on rational justification, but responses to the others will have to wait for another occasion. For now, the general position of Scripture on this matter renders any wayward interpretations suspect.
In summary, it seems fitting, based on the testimony of Scripture, as well as on what simply seems to be the case, to conclude that ideas ought to be defended, and that this principle extends especially into the pulpit, where the most important ideas are presented. This is not to deny or ignore the work of the Holy Spirit in either the proclamation or reception of the Word, but to observe the apostles, many Old Testament writers and God Himself have made a habit of defending ideas. In as much as a preacher seeks to emulate any of these, he or she ought to make such a habit, too.