Sometimes apologetics does not get a lot of respect among scholars, and one might imagine a few reasons why. For one it is by nature committed to defending the Christian faith and, as such, is seen as dogmatic and not really open to being led by truth if indeed that truth leads away from Christianity. Secondly apologetics is often interdisciplinary and not always focused on a specific field such as history, biology, mathematics, etc., and therefore viewed by many as a non-specialized discipline that does not really contribute to our knowledge of anything. Thirdly, too many people seem to want to call themselves an apologist which serves to denigrate the term. The purpose of this post is to address these three issue and make some suggestions as to why I think Apologetics is a respectable and legitimate discipline and what needs to happened for that to be better recognized by others.
Problem 1: Apologetics is by nature committed to defending the Christian faith and, as such, is seen as dogmatic and not really open to being led by truth if indeed that truth leads away from Christianity.
To be honest, this problem affects more than just Christian apologists. One might argue that many naturalists are so committed to their view that there is no supernatural realm that no matter how much evidence you show them they will never be swayed to believe anything else. In fact, any honest person realizes that we all have biases and that some will hold to their bias come what may, even if their personal beliefs are tantamount to clinging to Titanic while screaming “I don’t believe in Icebergs!”
That said, there are those in any field and worldview who are truly open to the evidence. This is itself evidenced by the fact that we can all note notorious figures who have jumped from the ship they deemed to be sinking and grasped the lifeboat of another position they deemed to be better off. Whether it be Antony Flew who was a renowned naturalist who now accepts at least a Deism of sorts, or Lee Strobel who was once an Atheist but now a famous Christian Apologist, or the reverse such as Bart Ehrman who once was a believer and now is one of the most prominent critics of Christianity in our day. So then, despite the fact that many do behave as ostriches in their worldview, it is clear that many people really are open to interacting with ideas outside of their sphere and in some cases are so moved by those ideas that they make major paradigm shifts.
On the flip side, it’s only natural that no matter what a person’s position is on any given issue that they have come to hold it for a reason (some reasons better than others) and they should not be expected to abandon that position unless given a better reason to believe something else. Christian apologists are no different in this regard than molecular biologists. We have come to certain conclusions based upon evidence, reason and experience. From my perspective the Christian Worldview answers the big questions of life and its meaning better than Atheism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Wicca, etc., and therefore deserves my allegiance. I have, however, often told those whom I have interacted with that if they can present a comprehensive worldview that makes more sense of the world than Christianity does that I am open to changing my position. Furthermore if you can disprove a central tenant of the faith, like the Resurrection of Jesus, then I will abandon my faith (as even the Apostle Paul suggests we ought to do in 1 Cor. 15 if it is the case that Christ was not raised).
As it stands I am very confident that no one will be able to offer me a better worldview or sufficient evidence against the Christian faith (or sufficient evidence in favor of another view) to move me from my position. That does not mean, however, that my confidence could not be undermined but only that I feel I have strong warrant for my beliefs and that my experience in interacting with others outside of Christianity suggests that others do not stand on nearly so firm of ground as I do. But, as my friend Jim Wallace would say, please, convince me! I am open to following the evidence because I want to believe that which is true. I don’t want to be living a life of self-deception.
So all of that said, the first problem with apologetics is not exclusively a problem with apologetics, nor is it necessarily an inherent problem with apologetics as a discipline and therefore it does not stand as a reason why apologetics ought to be condemned or looked down upon.
Problem 2: Apologetics is often interdisciplinary and not always focused on a specific field such as history, biology, mathematics, etc., and therefore viewed by many as a non-specialized discipline that does not really contribute to our knowledge of anything.
It’s important here to differentiate between two kinds of apologetics that exist today. We could call one form of apologetics “general apologetics” and the other “specialized apologetics.” General apologetics could be likened to the high school science teacher who has studied broadly in the field of general science so that he or she has a working understanding of biology, chemistry, geology, etc. As is usually the case such a teacher will probably have a favorite area of science which they are more specialized in but they are well equipped to give a general education in the sciences and answer the most common questions in each of the more specific fields. General apologists are very similar in this way. They have gotten a degree or degrees in “apologetics” and they have studied broadly in science, philosophy, history, theology, etc. and have a working understanding of many things in those fields and are able to answer some of the most common questions about those fields as they relate to the issues pertinent to Christianity. Depending on their interests and where they went to school (some schools are stronger in certain areas than others) they will be better equipped and more specialized in one or more areas than in others.
Specialized apologetics, on the other hand, we should liken to the science teacher who has done graduate or even doctoral studies in a specialized field science such as chemistry. While they probably still have some good general knowledge on other scientific disciplines they have highly specialized knowledge and understanding in one in particular. It is they who are doing new research and adding to the field of knowledge. There are Christian apologists who are specialized in this same way, they are those who have likewise pursued graduate and doctoral level degrees in an area of science, or philosophy or history or theology, etc. They are contributing new research in their areas and making discoveries and publishing and adding to the knowledge base of their field. These kinds of Christian apologist may have a good understanding of apologetic issues in other fields but they are highly specialized in one field in particular and make significant contributions to their respective disciplines.
It’s easy to see how both levels of apologetics are legitimate forms of the discipline and that the second problem with apologetics really is not a problem at all. We would also be wrong to conclude that one couldn’t make significant contributions in more than one field; there have been many brilliant men and women who have done just that. If one has studied math and philosophy then you know that Rene Descartes made significant contributions in both fields (Cartesian Coordinates / Cartesian Foundationalism) but who wants to say that he should not have done anything interdisciplinary!
Problem 3: Too many people seem to want to call themselves an apologist which serves to denigrate the term.
This is, in my estimation, the most significant problem at hand. There seems to be a massive influx of individuals in the Christian community labeling themselves as “Christian apologists.” To be fair, in one sense, every Christian is supposed to be an apologist. 1 Peter 3:15 is a general command to all believers and certainly did not have in mind a specific academic discipline. Those of us who are apologists want all believers to be properly equipped to “give an answer for the hope they have within them.” That is largely why we are doing what we do (not to mention that we desire to satisfy our own thirst for understanding).
So then I would not suggest that the answer is that people not be so interested in apologetics. Far from it, I wish more Christians would take a serious interest in apologetics and incorporate it into the life of every local church. But I would suggest that Christians use the title “apologist” more sparingly in the sense of a professional title that they bear. We should guard the use of such a title for those who have committed their life and study to the mission of proclaiming and defending the Christian faith as one of their primary disciplines.
Too many people confuse the idea of being a big fan or enthusiast of something and actually being expert in that area. Someone may read a lot of history books and enjoy talking about them, but that does not necessarily make them a “Historian” per se. I would recommend that people who are “into apologetics” or “apologetics buffs” identify themselves more in this way rather than calling themselves “an apologist” unless they are serious about it as an actual academic discipline either as a generalist or specialist. When we start using titles then people expect us to be able to back it up with an appropriate knowledge base. If then a title gets applied too widely and the experience of those who interact with the people bearing those titles is negative or to the effect of seeing those people as inadequate to speak to the issues then I believe it denigrates the field as a whole. The same would be true if everyone who liked to collect rocks called themselves geologists.
I don’t say any of this to be discouraging. I want you (yes you) to be very “into apologetics” and in fact I would invite you to consider whether or not God would lead you into the field and discipline of Christian apologetics. I am also not saying that someone cannot truly become professional in a field apart from formal education (although most do not). I am just saying that we ought to use appropriate titles and be honest about where we are at as an individual and that we should recognize and respect the difference between trained professionals, students in progress, or enthusiasts of a discipline. If we guard the discipline together then we might be able to make “Apologetics” seen with more respect as the actual academic discipline that it is.
In conclusion I think that these three problems can be shown mostly to be an issue of perception and that this perception can indeed be changed through more information. Apologetics is an important and multi-tiered academic discipline that is crucial to the life of the Christian church. Legitimate apologists are well trained, know the issues, can make significant contributions to their respective fields of knowledge, and are open to the evidence. Apologetics will hopefully continue to grow in popularity and acceptance in our local churches and the average believer will hopefully grow in knowledge and understanding of the issues so that they are prepared to give a defense of the faith wherever God has placed them professionally without needing to misappropriate the title of “apologist” unduly.