Dialogue: the Relation of Christian Apologetics & Testimony

Dialogue: the Relation of Christian Apologetics & Testimony January 31, 2020

Bob Robinson is the Executive Director of Reintegrate: a nonprofit organization that equips God’s people to reintegrate the Christian faith with vocation so that they can participate in God’s mission on earth.  He’s an ordained pastor (ordained for Gospel Ministry by The Chapel Consortium Churches). In 1996, he earned a Master of Divinity degree with honors from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and in 2018, the Doctor of Ministry degree from Covenant Theological Seminary in “Faith, Vocation, and Culture,” studying under Dr. Donald Guthrie.

I am responding to his article in the Faith and Work Patheos channel, entitled, “Apologetics Beyond Reason” (1-29-20). His words will be in blue.


Hi Pastor Bob,

First of all, let me preface this by saying that I looked over the ministry you are involved in, and I think it is a terrific thing. I have long pondered vocation, the relationship of work (as well as culture) and faith, living in community, making Jesus the Lord of all of life (I read lots of Francis Schaeffer back in the day), and related issues and matters. So I highly commend you, and in fact, it excites me to see what you are doing.

What I will disagree with below is not “life and death” but I think it is important enough to merit at least some attention. I’ve been passionately and continuously engaged in Christian apologetics since 1981, have been doing this work full-time since 2001 (I became a Catholic in 1990 after being an Arminian evangelical with many different influences), and have written books (see my Resume for details on that). So I have thought quite a bit about apologetics and what it entails and doesn’t entail, through the years (see that on my web page devoted to apologetics). And that is why I was particularly interested in your article that I happily discovered today, while looking for something else.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to offer some thoughts on a few things where I respectfully disagree with you. I love dialogues. I’m hoping you do, too.

In an increasingly postmodern culture, where there is skepticism of our capability to rely solely on “reason” to prove the truth of Christ, it seemed to me that we need to emphasize what I called an “Emmanuel Apologetic,” or a “God with us apologetic.”

Yes, I agree as a matter of more emphasis, while at the same time I don’t think that to do this means we have to somehow reject standard apologetics as it has always been throughout history: involving the relationship of faith and theology with reason and philosophy and science. I think it’s a “both/and” scenario, and not “either/or.” We can’t give up reason and objectivism because our culture has largely rejected both, anymore than we could give up geometry or science, if the society also rejected those. Some things we must stand for and defend, because they are good and true.

In the modern era, evangelical apologetics were of two types. Today we’ll look at the first type, . . . the Reason/Rationality sort—as in “Evidence that Demands a Verdict.” The word “apologetic” is from the Greek word apologia, translated either as “answer” or “defense” in English translations. As the English Standard Version renders 1 Peter 3:15, “Always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.”

Unfortunately, modernism stripped apologia from its context here in Peter’s letter and made it mean “a rational defense based on logic for all things Christian.” The ESV tells us to give a “defense” since people will ask us for the “reason” for the hope that is within us. This inadvertently feeds into the modernist mindset that we must give reasoned arguments to prove the truth of Christianity. There is a whole genre of Christian books called “apologetics,” or “ready defense” books, written by philosophy of religion specialists who offer “reasonable arguments defending the faith.”

I think what you are critiquing is indeed the meaning of defense here, and the essence of apologetics (rational defense of the Christian faith). As you almost certainly already know (but as many readers may not know), apologia was derived from Plato’s Apology, and originally meant “elaborate defense or explanation” and this was the meaning in Plato’s work, in which the philosopher Socrates defended himself against false accusations (and apologia is applied to Christian defense in 1 Peter 3:15).

I would also add that the Apostle Paul argued and disputed endlessly with Jews and Greeks (as we learn from Acts); he didn’t simply preach or testify. This sort of disputation or dialogue, of course, had a long history in both Jewish and Greek cultures. Jesus argued with Pharisees, and engaged and challenged them. Paul defended his Christian views at great length at his trial. It’s all very biblical. I really don’t see how this is “modernist.” I would say it is thoroughly grounded in the Bible and historic Christianity in all of its major groups, save just a few who believe in fideism.

The Greek word dialegomai is the source of the English word “dialogue”. It is found in the following passages:

Acts 17:2 (RSV) And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures,

Acts 17:17 Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him. [see also 17:18, 19:8-10]

Acts 18:4 And he reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks.

Acts 18:19 . . . he himself entered into the synagogue, and reasoned with the Jews.

Likewise, the New Testament word suzeteo means “argue”. It is found in the following passages:

Acts 9:29 And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians: but they went about to slay him.

Mark 12:28 And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, . . .

This statement was in reference to Jesus’ discussion with the Sadducees about resurrection (Mk 12:18-27). Thus, Jesus used the techniques of “argument,” “debate,” and “disputation,” just as St. Paul did, and on very many occasions as well, especially with the Pharisees. Lastly, all Christians are encouraged in Jude 3, to do so:

Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.

Even God Himself, in the context of commanding good works, heartfelt worship, and personal sanctification (Is 1:11-21), stated: “Come now, let us reason together” (1:18). Thus, these two elements are both important.

But there are those Christians that gobble up these books hoping to arm themselves with Christian rational arguments in order to counter the arguments that non-Christians may have against the faith. They want to be ready, in case they have to defend why they believe certain doctrines, like the resurrection, miracles, or even the existence of God.

Well, yes, seeing that 1 Peter 3:15 is a command to do this very thing, as is Jude 3. I have engaged in well over a hundred dialogues with atheists, and they bring up all these objections to Christianity from reason. And so I answer them from reason. Paul urged us to “become all things to all men.” So if someone is making rational objections to Christianity, we have to meet them where they are at. Atheism is the logical outcome of the radical and increasing secularism of our society. I meet them where they are at: and it is usually rationalism.

But look again at the context of 1 Peter 3:15. The “answer” or “defense” that one is told to be prepared to give is to those who ask us Christians why we live in such hope.

What this presupposes is that the Christian community is living in such a radical and conspicuous way in the midst of those who do not yet know Christ that these people are either genuinely wondering why we have such a hopeful lifestyle or they are suspicious that we are just play-acting it. Very often it will be the latter. 

It’s a good point, and I agree. I just don’t think “hope” here wipes out rational apologetics, or renders it secondary to what I would call “testimony.” We need both. The better witness we can bring, the more people will listen to our explanations and defenses. We gotta walk the walk as well as talk the talk. If we don’t, then our apologetics will be much less effective and persuasive. But Jesus already told us that we would be massively hated, too (just as He was), no matter how well we accomplish these tasks, by His grace.

Also, this “defense” is not so much a “reasoned argument” but an “account” (the Greek word here is logos, a “word,” or “a narrative description”) of why we have hope.

We are told here to tell our story.

We’re not told to provide a list of reasoned propositions, but to give an account. We are to tell our story of encounter with Christ, transformation in our faith, and why we are so radically living in such a different manner—spreading hope to those around us.

Fair enough, and another good point. But I see the two things as converging. For example, were I to give an account of my own life, I would tell how Christ saved me from misery and hopelessness, the occult, and the despair of depression (back in 1977), and I would give all the glory to God and state that I believe what He has communicated both in His revelation (explained in greater depth by Christian teachers) and to me personally in my own religious experiences. Most skeptics — in my long experience — will then ask, “but why do you believe in the Bible and Christian doctrines?” I can’t just say “because they are touchy-feely and warm fuzzy and make me feel great!” That is meaningless to them. They want to know why we believe in Christianity.

And that necessarily leads to rational arguments and standard apologetics. They’re not separate from each other. Our “account” won’t be accepted by most unless we back it up.  People today are like Doubting Thomas. And how did Jesus persuade him? He appeared after His resurrection and had him feel His wounds from crucifixion (i.e., empirical evidence that this was indeed Him: gloriously risen). Jesus provided that, even though He also noted, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn 20:29). But nevertheless He did appear, to “prove Himself” to Thomas. And I think that is significant. Some folks have a greater need of hard-and-fast evidence than others. Jesus in effect said, “that’s okay.” It’s not ideal or the best, but it’s okay and He acts accordingly. I love that!

Then in the next verse, we are told, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;” and in Acts 1:3, Luke writes: “To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs . . .” That’s not only “look at Me” or “here is my testimony” stuff — not just the testimony of the extraordinary personal traits and perfect holiness of Our Lord — ; it’s a species of rational (and even empirical) apologetics. The resurrection itself is of the same nature. Once the disciples saw the risen Jesus, with His wounds and a physical body, doing things like eating fish (as earthy as it gets!), then they could believe He conquered death, and go out and preach and transform the world.

While I believe that some people, if they have cognitive roadblocks to faith, may still need to have things explained to them in rational ways, 

Good. I just think more people need this than you think need it.

the main biblical apologetic has always been an Emmanuel Apologetic—an apologetic that displays God to people by living among people as a community of hope.

Again, with all due respect, I wouldn’t say that is the “main biblical apologetic.” I would say it is absolutely important and necessary, but is testimony that always should accompany apologetics, rather than apologetics itself or per se. When Jesus first sent out the disciples to preach, note what He told them:

Matthew 10:7-8 And preach as you go, saying, `The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ [8] Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.

He didn’t say that they should give their testimony and talk about how their new budding (or soon-to-be) Christian community is so joyful and enticing and hopeful (though they may have done that too, and it simply wasn’t mentioned). Rather, He stressed four miracles: all of which constituted empirical proofs or evidences that what they said was true. This is a form of apologetics in the sense that it was like Jesus’ resurrection: miracles that verified that the gospel was true, just as Jesus verified that He did indeed rise from the dead and was God incarnate, as He claimed to be.

Now it’s true that in Acts we also have these passages:

Acts 2:44-47 And all who believed were together and had all things in common; [45] and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. [46] And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, [47] praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Acts 4:32-35 Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. [33] And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. [34] There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold [35] and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.

I think you and I agree that these are examples of manifestations of “hope” that Christian communities ought to exhibit as the light of the world and salt of the earth: the city on a hill. But note how signs and wonders (empirical proofs) are in play, too, in both contexts. Acts 2 contained the miracle of tongues (2:4) on the Day of Pentecost (i.e., the variety which includes various actual languages) and prophecies and visions (2:17). Peter had just emphasized Jesus’ resurrection, in the first Christian sermon (2:31-32). Then Luke the narrator notes: “many wonders and signs were done through the apostles” (2:43).

The context of the Acts 4 passage is similar. Peter again proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection (4:2, 10) and appealed to the healing of a “cripple” (4:9-10, 14, 16, 21-22; referring back to the described healing in Acts 3:1-10), mentions “signs and wonders” (4:30), and then the sign of people being “filled with the Holy Spirit” again occurs (4:31).

What I am contending for, then, is, I submit, verified even in passages that you might bring to bear in defense of the “testimony” aspect of Christian witness and proclamation (and apologetics, as it were).

These are just some thoughts that came to mind. We don’t disagree all that much; mostly on emphasis and particular definitions. I’m not at all denying the importance or cruciality of your emphasis, nor — far as I can tell — are you doing that to mine. But we hold to different degrees of relative importance.

Thanks for reading and for the stimulation for me to express these thoughts that I never have in quite this fashion before.


Photo credit: Saint Peter Healing the Cripple, by Simone Cantarini (1612-1648) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]



"If indeed this is inspired revelation, no problem knowing things like the virgin birth. Also, ..."

Reply to Hays’ “Catholicism” #1
""Because it was part and parcel of the miracle of the virgin birth of our ..."

Reply to Hays’ “Catholicism” #1
"Dave, when you said, "Not the almost self-evident absurdity of this statement." Did you mean ..."

Reply to Hays’ “Catholicism” #10

Browse Our Archives

Close Ad