A Fresh Agenda for Apologetics in the 21st Century

Apologetics remains an important tool for the church in the 21st century. It is a discipline that helps in the proclamation of the gospel by concentrating on the presentation of answers to questions and clarifications about Christian belief. As Avery Dulles' historical survey in A History of Apologetics shows, in every generation apologists have had to address different kinds of questions and issues. This has meant that apologetic styles and methods have been reconfigured every often so as to effectively handle the spiritual problems of the day. Once again we find ourselves in circumstances where the apologetic challenges and questions are changing, and so it is appropriate that we pause to reassess and reformulate apologetics in order to create a fresh agenda for the discipline in the 21st century. The Christian apologist is presented with this opportunity as Western culture continues to change in response to global currents of thought.

Missiologist David Bosch stated that, "The mission of the church needs constantly to be renewed and reconceived." In the post-Christendom and pluralistic environment in the West, a new atmosphere exists far different from the Christendom culture in which Evangelicalism was birthed. The move from modernism to a developing and increasingly influential postmodernism represents a significant cultural shift with major implications for church and ministry. In response to these changing cultural forces, apologists should be encouraged that apologetics remains a valid part of the task of the church, yet also be challenged by the need to create room for a "renewed and reconceived" apologetic agenda.

Apologists and apologetically-minded Christians are encouraged to consider various aspects of apologetics that might assist in the reformulation of apologetics for the new century. What follows are some indicators for fresh apologetic engagements.

Contextualized apologetics

American culture represents a patchwork mosaic of various subcultures. Each subculture holds to a variety of views on spirituality, values, attitudes, and behaviors that provide members or participants in a group with a sense of self-identity. In many ways our American experience of cultural and religious diversity is nothing new. The nation's slogan "E Pluribus Unum"—out of many, one—is a reminder that since colonial times America has been a haven for those seeking the freedom to practice their religion. While the first Western European colonists in general practiced Christianity, they represented a broad spectrum of denominations, traditions, and beliefs. As immigrants from around the world settled in America, such diversity was not confined to a variety of Christian denominations, but rather has a long pedigree in time where people groups have also opted for folk religion, esoteric beliefs, religions of Asiatic origin, and in many new religious groups.

Cross-cultural missionaries understand that in order for the gospel to be understood and to be relevant to differing people groups and subcultures, the gospel must be appropriately communicated for different cultural contexts. This process is known as contextualization. Harold Netland of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School has suggested that apologetics too must be "culture-specific" or contextualized appropriately in order to be effective. Netland affirms that the content of the Gospel transcends all cultures, but he highlights how apologetic styles must adapt and address the problems and questions of a given culture or sub-culture. In other words, apologists need to know what cultures and sub-cultures exist, and discover first-hand the questions and spiritual problems of these cultures. To do that apologists can no longer afford to be mere arm-chair observers of culture; rather they must do primary field-work research in meeting people in sub-cultures, observing how they live, how they apply their beliefs to life, and discovering from the horse's mouth what their actual apologetic questions happen to be. There is little to be gained by trotting out answers to questions that nobody is asking any more.

With the need for a culture-specific apologetic in mind consider examples of contextualized apologetic approaches. In the first example, a rational emphasis will be appropriate in modernist circles where reason and logical argumentation are valued, whereas a relational approach will be more effective in postmodern contexts. This shift in emphasis should not be construed as an abandonment of reason or the use of apologetics as a capitulation to some form of irrationalism. Rather, it is an acknowledgment of shifting cultural realities in the West and strategic changes that should be considered in order for apologists to be effective communicators. In the modernist context great value was attached to arguments and evidences. In this context it was appropriate to provide "evidences that demand a verdict." In the postmodern context, reason is still valuable (since human beings are rational creatures created in God's image), but the place of reason in spirituality is different. For a postmodernist, truth and experience go hand in hand. There must be a combination and integration of the rational and the experiential. The use of a traditional evidential apologetic, with heavy emphasis on logic and evidence is often rejected by a generation interested in truth, but often looking for it in relational ways, and in ways that also make room for mystery and experience.