Is the place of apologetics in contemporary Christian theology and ministry changing?
Apologetics, within the modern evangelical framework, is understood as a reasoned defense of the coherence and intellectual validity of Christian faith and belief. It tends to draw upon "worldview" language and usually involves an active comparison of religious, philosophical, and ethical frameworks. Apologetics is usually considered an evangelistic enterprise, though one characterized by cerebral discussions. The "target" of apologetic practice is normally an intellectually sophisticated non-Christian, agnostic or atheist.
When talking about apologetics, the question usually arises regarding how many non-Christians are "converted" to Christianity through an apologetic dialogue. A common concession one hears is that apologetics often ends up being more about strengthening and encouraging the faith of Christian believers than winning and converting new ones. In either case, whether it is for the evangelism of unbelievers or for the discipleship of the converted, apologetics—even as traditionally practiced—can be fruitful and positive.
However, it is worth considering, in our evolving cultural context, whether a fresh paradigm for apologetics might render new energy and vitality to a time-tested practice. Theologians over the centuries have always reexamined the right way to engage with unbelief. For followers of Aquinas, for instance, apologetics includes "natural theology" (reflecting on the qualities of God made manifest in nature) and takes an optimistic outlook on the place of general human knowledge in articulating Christian belief. For followers of Karl Barth, on the other hand, apologetics, when it bases its argument on propositions independent of Christian revelation and practice, is regarded with deep skepticism. Both perspectives are still found in the dialogue today. Yet the Thomistic and Barthian concerns might find some common ground in a "new apologetic" for the 21st century that would be 1) evangelistic, 2) integrative, 3) holistic, 4) communal, and 5) contextual.
Evangelistic: We still need to practice apologetics today, because evangelism is no less important today than it was in the first century. Christ is still Lord and redeemer, but many still have not personally experienced his Lordship and redemption. Apologetics, as I see it, is simply what happens when theology (and philosophy, science, history, and sociology—but more about that later) is utilized in an evangelistic dialogue.
When a Christian is engaged in conversation with non-believers or skeptics, questions invariably arise: Why do you trust the Bible as your primary source of divine revelation? Why is there so much evil and suffering in the world? Why should I accept the uniqueness of Christ in an age of many putative gods or potential saviors? Apologetics simply is the attempt to address these questions with pastoral sensitivity, communal embodiment, and intellectual viability.
A caveat: While Christians ought to continue to practice evangelism, we need to maintain a poignant—though painful—recognition of our past and present failures to respect the other and to distinguish between Jesus-styled evangelism and triumphalism. We need to be aware that colonialism and imperialism have often masked themselves as evangelism and mission. But this awareness should not keep Christians from sharing the Lordship of Jesus and from answering probing questions about their faith and theological convictions. With that caveat in mind, the "new apologetics" should be:
Integrative: "All truth is God's truth." If something is true, it counts—no matter whether it comes from scripture or from science, from "the book of God" or the "book of nature." Apologetics should take an explicitly and intentionally integrative stance and methodology. Science can show us how nature works, introduce us to the outer reaches of the cosmos and explore the inner workings of the quantum world, and detail the origins of the universe and the remarkable development of biological life. Apologetics ought to embrace the discoveries of science, while recognizing that contemporary scientific consensus does not have the final word (as any responsible scientist would acknowledge). Prevailing scientific explanations will eventually be outstripped and outdated by new discoveries. This does not give us continual license, however, to pit interpretations of the Bible against science while closing our eyes to evidence. Models of integration between science and theology can be found in the work of people like Alister McGrath, John Polkinghorne, Nancey Murphy, and Francis Collins. While these figures are not often labeled as apologists, they offer resources for communicating the reasonableness of the Christian faith in positive, integrative ways. If apologetics is intentionally integrative, then it need not worry so much about "defending the corners" (per Daniel Harrell's phrase) as about exploring the intersections.