A Fresh Agenda for Apologetics in the 21st Century
In meeting the challenge of a new century, apologists might also consider rethinking the appropriate role and place of apologetics in Christian discipleship. Certainly the use of apologetics needs to be expanded in Western culture, yet when apologetic methods are utilized many times the defense of the faith becomes an end unto itself. When this happens the apologist is prone to a defensive self-identity wherein the refutation of false thinking is seen as the primary reason for ministry.
Gordon Lewis, a prominent apologist from previous decades, has commented on this mentality in apologetics applied to new religious movements. He notes that, curiously, apologists working in the field of new religions envision their calling as a "counter" to various heresies, yet missionaries to world religions would never characterize their ministries as "counter-Buddhist" or "counter-Muslim." Lewis suggests that the remedy for this situation is for a new conception of Evangelical ministries to new religions. This new conception is not primarily apologetic or "counter-cult," but rather a positive and pro-active sense of frontier missionaries to unreached peoples in alternative spirituality. This new conception for apologetic ministry will only be possible to the extent that we recognize that apologetics is not an end unto itself, but is a tool that is ancillary to the missions and evangelism calling of the church.
What some apologists should reflect upon is the need to distinguish between simply answering doctrinal problems (like refuting heresies) and the processes involved in proclaiming the gospel and making disciples. The refutation of someone's beliefs does not equate to evangelism and contextual mission. A negative debunking of heresy is not synonymous with missions. Missions involve understanding a culture, the people's beliefs and practices, and the questions and issues with which these people wrestle. To refute a person's beliefs is scarcely the equivalent of encompassing all that a missionary must do. Apologists need to embrace and apply the principles of cross-cultural missions in their work. Missions and apologetics are not antithetical, but can be used in a harmonious way to proclaim and commend the gospel and to nurture new disciples in Christ. Dealing with doctrinal objections then has its place, but it does not constitute the whole picture. If we can grasp a sense of ourselves as missions apologists this might be a prescription for a healthy apologetic agenda in the 21st century.
As traditionally formulated, Western apologetics has tended to be primarily the presentation of rationalist arguments. But a purely or largely rationalist approach to apologetics is neither faithful to the biblical example, nor appropriate in many segments of Western culture. David Wilkinson, an apologist with the University of Durham, notes that in Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman he did not merely present a series of rationalist arguments. Rather, he engaged her imagination in conversation (Jn. 4:1-15). Wilkinson believes that a reformulated and relevant apologetic for the 21st century will be winsome and diverse, incorporating not only logical arguments but also "narrative, image, poetry, dance, music, and parable." Wilkinson suggests that the apologist's self-conception as artist in addition to scientist or lawyer is crucial to the success of contemporary apologetics that seeks to be culturally relevant.
John W. Morehead is the Custodian of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, the Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies, and has been involved in interreligious dialogue for many years in the contexts of Islam, Mormonism, and Paganism. He is editor of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue, by Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega.