Apologetics & Idolatry

Apologetics & Idolatry May 13, 2019
Idols Among Us
Photo courtesy of Harry Wedzinga / flickr.com

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.

Sound familiar?

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.

Just as those assumptions governed his interpretation of Scripture to produce his own spin on the Christian faith, so do modern apologists. They are simply less aware of the cultural-philosophical tail that wags their apologetic dog.

“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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

About John Nugent
John C. Nugent is the author of "Endangered Gospel," professor of theology, and co-host of the After Class Podcast. You can read more about the author here.
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  • Tommy Moehlman

    John, thanks for this. I think you rightly apply pressure to problematic parts the “apologetic” project. Do you have any inklings on how apologetics might function constructively in the body? You’ve spent considerable space deconstructing a particular vision of apologetics. What might reparative vision look like?

  • John Nugent

    Great question, Tommy. If this article is right that we should avoid the posture of “defending” God, I think that commends a different sort of posture. One could call it “witness” or “testimony.” God has acted in world history to change the course of world history through Jesus. We are called to bear witness to that change. Hopefully that will generate questions and we shouldn’t hesitate to answer them. But there should be a degree of humility to those answers. Not a posture of arrogance or defensiveness. We have a different version of world history to offer. We offer that version as a gift…as a new possibility that others may accept–but only by faith. When our rhetoric becomes pushy, argumentative, or insulting toward other positions, that reflects either a lack of confidence in what we believe or a lack of comprehension of how God has called us to represent him.

    That gets at a big picture posture or approach. Any more details will require more specific questions or cases.

  • “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. I wonder then why evangelicals get excited about the Great Commission. It was given to the disciples, not people today, and anyway God is far more able to convince people than any Christian today.

  • Timothy Hans Kurnia

    Hi, I personally allude to your approach as to being in the offensive about proclaiming the gospel, though I wanted to sheepishly add that I think when we do try to discuss things about God to unbelievers, there’s a sense that God’s power can flow through what we say, and convict them, so what happens is not only are we trying to explain with good logic, but God’s power will follow through. I think this is what 1 Corinthians 4:20 speak of.

  • John Nugent

    That’s an important point. Thanks for sharing. It’s a good reminder that we are not alone in this. God wants to draw people to himself more than we want to, and so he is actively at work.

  • John Nugent

    I’m still a great commission guy. But I like to emphasize that making disciples is about “apprenticeship” in the way of Jesus. It presumes people want to learn and want us to teach them. And this presumes that Christians are at least doing something to make people aware of the gospel.

  • Sure, if someone asks about the hope within you, tell them–free speech and all that. It’s the “Excuse me, sir, but have you heard the Good News?” that I question.

    I’ve written more about how the Great Commission doesn’t make sense here:

  • Faith L Sochay

    This was helpful. I never really stopped to consider the difference between “bearing witness to God because He is good” and “defending God” and was very recently tripped up by this concept and didn’t know how to answer:

    I was explaining to someone might stay married even when it’s hard…because God is faithful to us so we should strive for that faithfulness. They stated back, “So God needs us to prove things about him? You serve a weak God. He doesn’t need people to be married for Him.”

    And I was stumped. And it sent me into a bit of confusion…does God need me to be good so people can be assured of His goodness? But the way you have described things here…just…it’s more than tweaking.

    Showing something because it is good and you’re excited about it is different than defending it because it needs defending. I didn’t have those word or that thought process. Now I do! Thank you!

  • billwald

    Jesus didn’t write anything so which came first, the writing or the concept? Even if God dictated the words, we don’t know the meaning of the words when God dictated them.

    We have the same problem in this century because most people don’t know the 1800 meaning of the words. No one seems to know the 20th century difference between prejudice and discrimination. “Discrimination” was often used in glossy magazine advertising copy (not newspapers). “Discriminating men bought Brooks Brother’s suits. In the 1940’s, engineers named the electrical circuit in an FM radio the “discriminator.”

    discriminatory (adj.)
    1803, “that marks distinction; making distinctions, discriminating;” see discriminate + -ory. Earlier was discriminative (1620s). As “involving distinctions based on racial prejudice,” by 1954.

    The word’s meaning was reversed from when I was in grade school to when I was in high school.

  • billwald

    YES! I never did understand why Reformed Churches who follow John Calvin Think that God needs humans to preach to non-believers. The Holy Spirit can regenerate anyone through/by/because of the faith of Christ Jesus. Conversion is our confirmation to other humans that we were previously regenerated by God.

    Hate to confess it but there is something to the “social gospel.” Before most of you were born, a famous (English?) preacher noted that the neighborhood bar does what the neighborhood church is doing. Something like that. Being in church is supposed to be more “profitable” (pun intended” than the local pub.

  • billwald

    Agree. I don’t pester people. If someone else raises the topic, I’m ready to respond.

  • billwald

    The Holy Sprite testifies to my spirit. I can’t rationally explain my experience any more than I can explain my personal dreams.

    The (proving) situation has gotten has much worse in this century. I can’t prove my universe exist. Our universe could only exist in computer memory. After all, Preachers have told me that we only exist in God’s mind. Our atoms and molecules only exist in God’s Mind. Is this a more comfortable thought than existing in computer memory?

    Further, since quantum physics, some of our best scientists wonder if the universe has a physical existence. As one popular science writer put it, God is a Geometer.”

  • The church in the US around 1900 was busy with improving many progressive social issues–child labor, public education, alcoholism, clean food, prison reform, and many other issues. Today, what the church is known for is pedophilia and dragging its heals on social issues like same-sex marriage.