Stanley Being Stanley
Apologetics can be tricky. I once heard Stanley Hauerwas say something like, “Never think you need to protect God. If you think you need to protect God, you can be sure that you are worshiping an idol.”
I like this quote because it exposes our insecurities about God. We’ve learned, perhaps the hard way, that the God of Scripture cannot be proven. Faith is actually required.
Sure we can argue through observation that the universe conveys order and presupposes some sort of cause beyond itself, but that does not get us to the specific God of Scripture revealed in Jesus. Observation can only get us to the concept of a generic creator God.
Champions of apologetics often make much of Thomas Aquinas’s five famous “proofs.” But Thomas argued that these simply prove the rationality of belief in God. He added that Scripture alone leads us to a proper understanding of the Christian God.
God Being God
This is not bad news. God created things this way. He chose to do so and we are in no position to second guess him or approve of his decisions. To do so places ourselves above God, which is idolatry.
We also commit idolatry by judging God according to the standards of contemporary society. Contemporary society is also in no position to accredit God, nor any other society. Any system that holds God accountable to certain standards usurps God’s place and reduces him to a lower level deity.
Fred Being Fred
To illustrate this form of idolatry, let’s consider a famous dead theologian. Discussing dead people helps us imitate their virtues and avoid their vices.
In the early 19th century, Friedrich Schleiermacher (let’s call him Fred) sought to make Christianity acceptable to the religion haters of his day. The Romantic period rejected institutional religions. Romantic thinkers despised their ancient traditions, practices, and doctrines. They also criticized intellectual and ethical approaches to religion.
Sharing those sensibilities, yet not wishing to throw the baby out with the bathwater, Fred repackaged Christianity into a form more acceptable to him and his peers. His did so by identifying the core of religion as the individual’s feeling of complete dependence on the divine, the infinite, or the absolute. Such immediate personal experience stands at the core of an individual’s faith. All religious practices and institutions must bow before this “feeling” of the divine.
Josh Being Josh
Fast forward two hundred years and listen to the testimony of well-known apologist Josh McDowell. Having grown up in the Church, Josh asks the question that we wish all skeptics would ask, yet not enough do:
“What makes you so different?”
The Christian promptly responds, “Jesus Christ.”
Josh retorts, “Don’t give me that religion crap.” (my paraphrase)
Modern day Fred then replies, “I did not say ‘religion,’ I said ‘Jesus Christ.’”
And so begins a saving conversation that ends with Josh entering a personal relationship with Jesus. Christian doctrines, practices, and institutions then step in to serve and enhance his individual experience.
Simply substitute terms like “divine,” “infinite,” and “absolute” with the name “Jesus” and true religion is back up and running. Put differently, replace German Romanticism with American Individualism and we have a culture-friendly faith with all of its necessary supports.
Now the astute evangelical may interrupt, “That’s not fair. Josh McDowell and friends have a high view of Scripture and derive their teachings from it. Fred was steeped in Neo-Platonism. Clearly you are comparing apples to oranges.”
Not so fast. Those who read Fred know that he, too, used Scripture to back up what he said. Only, he was more upfront about the philosophical assumptions he brought to the text.
“Maybe,” the sympathetic evangelical might respond, “But who can deny the genuineness of Josh’s conversion and the thousands of people his conferences and writings have converted?”
I do not deny that Josh’s conversion was real and that it produced positive results. I, myself, grew in my faith at a young age after reading one of Josh’s books. They also sparked my theological curiosity.
But the fact that God has worked wonders through a certain approach does not let us off the hook for seeking to transmit God’s life-giving word as faithfully as possible.
It remains true that attempts to defend God or make his gospel more attractive by presenting him as someone different from who he really is—or by offering us something different from what he actually offers us—border on idolatry.
Us Being Faithful Translators
So how might we avoid apologetic idolatry? One way is to use Bible terms for Bible things. Here I am not denying the need for translation. By all means, we must find twenty-first century terms that our neighbors can understand to talk about first century events.
What the faithful translator must never do, which well-intending apologists have been doing since second-fourth century Gnosticism, is replace Bible concepts with contemporary concepts that conflict with the Bible concepts they attempt to translate.
It is one thing to take a biblical phrase like “kingdom of God” and translate it as “God’s reign” or “God’s rule.” It is another thing to replace it with “inner feeling of dependence” or “personal relationship with Jesus.” Though there is some truth in both of these phrases, neither adequately translates the core of the gospel Jesus preached.
Us Being Faithful Witnesses
Another way to avoid apologetic idolatry is to trade a defensive posture with a witnessing posture. God doesn’t need us to defend him or protect him from the harsh words of others. He is God enough to handle that. He wants us to tell his story and live our lives as if we really believed in him.
We must boldly tell the Bible story and testify to how it has impacted our lives. We have good news to tell, not a weak idea to defend. The gospel is God’s gift to us. A gift cannot be forced down someone’s throat or beat into their brains.
If your conversations with unbelievers have you feeling less like a bearer of good tidings and more like a defendant on the stand, then apologetic idolatry may be lurking around the corner.
“But wait,” you might be thinking, “Doesn’t 1 Peter 3:15 tell us to that we must always be ready to give a defense?”
Yes, but read in its context this passage does not champion all forms of apologetics. First Peter 3:14-16 says,
“But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.”
Three lessons on apologetics from 1 Peter 3:14-16
- It begins by telling us not to fear what unbelievers fear but to remember that Christ is Lord. In other words, our prosecutors are not in the judgment seat, Christ is. Their categories, statistics, or logic don’t trump God’s story.
- Peter does not tell us to offer a defense of God in this verse, but an account of our hope. Believers are people of hope who offer hope to our accusers. We have a gift to share and we know that God has given all people the ability to reject it.
- Believers must make this offer in gentleness. We don’t run people over with our superior arguments or manipulate them into making forced decisions. We must respect their disbelief the way Jesus respected the disbelief and rejection he encountered in the flesh.
Me Being Concise
In sum, we must not spoil God’s gift by watering it down until our audience eagerly embraces it. That’s the wrong kind of apologetics. Nor should we cram it down people’s throats until they give in just to make us stop. Disciples aren’t made that way; slaves are. Since God is not that kind of master, we reduce him to an idol when we represent him that way.