Scholars and Apologists

The term “apologist” has become an insult, but it was not always so. If we consider those who tend to be placed in the category “apologist” in the early church – figures like Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen – then clearly they were also as much “scholars” as anyone in their time.

The lines can be blurry in the present day as well.

At one end of the spectrum, that of “scholarship,” we might place those who simply seek after the truth, and follow evidence where it leads, who use their reason to try to get at answers to questions which they consider interesting, but with no ax to grind – or at least not to such an extent that they would not revise their conclusions and even rethink their presuppositions if evidence required it.

At the other end of the spectrum, that of “apologetics,” we might place those who are seeking to defend their beliefs at all costs, seeking any argument, quotation, or so-called “proof” that might allow them to score points against others, or persuade themselves that criticisms made and arguments put forward by others can be rejected or ignored.

Most people are not at either extreme.

In between, there are a full range of people whose work may be mostly critical or mostly uncritical, and who fall at varying points along a spectrum, but clearly fit more squarely into one category than the other.

But near the middle, there are also those who wear their commitments and presuppositions proudly, and who are unashamed that they are seeing things from a particular place. And their commitments – whether Christian or atheist, feminist or liberation theologian – are not merely an interpretative framework that skews their vision, but an interpretative framework which at times enables them to see things in a way that someone with different assumptions would have missed. They are engaging neither in scholarship that attempts to be disinterested, nor in mere defense or advocacy of a beloved viewpoint.

Speaking in generalized terms, perhaps it could be said that those who are scholars know that words are hard to pin down and the domains they refer to have blurry edges; those who are apologists are prone to disagree. And so perhaps how one responds to this post may indicate which pole you tend towards.

Another good test of whether you are too far from the pole of scholarship might be whether you recognize that those who see from a different stance than you have something worthwhile and useful to offer. If you have never learned something from someone with a radically different, even opposing, viewpoint to your own, chances are that you are closer to the pole of defending your views at all costs, than to the pole of seeking to understand and appreciating any and all assistance that may be offered on the road to understanding.

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  • Stephen J. Bedard

    Thanks for your post.  I am a self-described apologist.  While I am an evangelical Christian, I have to say that my apologetic drive comes from my desire for truth rather than defending my positions.  This may be bad, but I am more offended by people misrepresenting history than those who insult my religion.  Much of my research deals with the Jesus myth theory and I get as upset by how they misuse Egyptian and Greek myths as I do by how they use the Gospels.

  • Angie VanDeMerwe

    When you are talking of religious frameworks, you aren’t talking about scholarship, but some “moral understanding”….according to a particular text or tradition. That isn’t seeking truth wherever it may lead, but defending one’s faith commitments according to a certain tradition or text….that isn’t about liberty of choice and value, but ‘presuppositional’ understanding of life, and liberty. And such understanding is limiting to individuality, because it frames understanding within certain parameters of “God”/community. But, similar things could be said to a postmodern stance toward faith commitments based on a particular frame of reference (feminist, “Black”, ‘Liberation”, etc to frame theology)…which is a particular or specialized interest of personal value or commitment of a particular believer.
    Religion used to be man’s seeking after understanding “all that is”. Today, conservative religion is a seeking after a particular understanding of “morality”, which are termed “family values”. Families are the framework where children come to understand themselves, and their value to society at large….and some frame their faith in terms of ‘family’, when natural families are not found to be supportive frames of reference. Such understandings are not “natural”, and leave the “real world” for a supernatural/idealistic one. Such thinking never resolves the issues that are always a part of the child’s internal conflict and struggle of understanding himself and his natural family. And such issues are not about spiritual realities but personal pain. 

    • Angie VanDeMerwe

      and personal pain has to be resolved with therapy.

  • I agree with many of your general points and feel they are superbly said.  But most of religious apologist work is far from scholarly but indeed on that far side of the spectrum.  Besides, they aren’t interested in finding how the world works, they are interesting in tying their dogma in knotts or wrapping rhetoric so nicely that believers can read them and feel safe.

  • Mira

    What if, after reading this post, I see less of a clear distinction between the two than I did before because I think reflexivity and awareness of one’s own beliefs is a core ingredient of scholarship? (I.e., where do you put anthropologists in all this? I wonder how much disciplinary distinctions affect the definition.) 

    • It’s an interesting question about disciplinary distinctions. I know that anthropology traditionally, in theory, was supposed to involve dispassionate observation rather than advocacy. I would be interested to know how much that older idea has been reevaluated in more recent years.

  • It may be true that “most people are not at either extreme”, but some very loud academics with large fervent audiences of the faithful most certainly are.

    Consider “philosopher” William Lane Craig:

    “The ministerial use of reason occurs when reason submits to and serves the gospel. In light of the Spirit’s witness, only the ministerial use of reason is legitimate. Philosophy is rightly the handmaid of theology.”“The Bible says all men are without excuse. Even those who are given no good reason to believe and many persuasive reasons to disbelieve have no excuse, because the ultimate reason they do not believe is that they have deliberately rejected God’s Holy Spirit.”

    ‘Apologist’ may be the nicest of many words I could use to describe W.L. Craig.  ‘Scholar’ is not on the list (PhD notwithstanding).