When we think about “doing apologetics,” too often (in our circles, at least) what first comes to mind is a debate over apologetic methodology. Are we going to be presuppositionalist-covenantal or “classical”-evidentialist? As a friend of mine used to say, “We seem more concerned with sharpening and polishing our swords than with actually carrying them into the battle.”
Apologetics—the “defense of the faith”—is an instrument of evangelism, designed to help us reach the lost with the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, whom to receive and trust is “eternal life.” As one of the most effective apologists in recent memory, the late Greg Bahnsen, did not tire of saying, our apologetic must be “taken to the streets.” A sound method that is never brought to bear on the actual questions and doubts of a skeptical unbeliever confronted with the claims of Christ is of little value.
When the apostle Peter exhorts us to “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15), the context reminds us that such a defense is likely to arise in the rough-and-tumble of our daily interactions with the unbelieving world in which we move every day. Specifically, Peter reminds us that we may “suffer for righteousness’ sake” (v. 14), and he urges us not to be afraid of those who would revile our good behavior (v. 16). Instead, we must be prepared—always prepared—to give a reasoned defense for our hope in Christ Jesus. Such a scenario is about as far removed from academic isolation as can be imagined.
So let’s think about doing apologetics at Starbucks.
When we think of defending the faith in a “postmodern” cultural setting, we are simply recognizing that many of the people we will meet at Starbucks will have a certain orientation to their life experiences and human relationships.
We need not detain ourselves here with precise or elaborate definitions of postmodernism. Indeed, what is called “postmodern” is really the “other side” of modernism, and has been around for a long time.
Romanticism was a movement that emphasized intuition rather than scientific investigation when confronting the natural world, and feelings rather than analytical reasoning as the preferred route to personal convictions. Add to these a relativism in ethics and cultural values, and a skepticism about anything deemed “traditional”—especially “organized religion” (i.e., Christianity)—and you have the kind of postmodernism you will encounter over coffee.
Given this social temper, when our goal is to persuade people (2 Cor. 5:11), how we present our defense of the faith may be as important as its content. Among people who are more in tune with relational concerns than rational argument, who indeed are instinctively skeptical of the latter, Peter’s words about the manner of our speaking jump off the page: “make a defense … with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
My experience has been that we Reformed presuppositionalists (or “covenantal apologists,” to use K. Scott Oliphint’s more recent term) tend to come on pretty strong. We may be speaking the truth, but our love and concern for the unbeliever can easily get lost in our personal interchanges. Francis Schaeffer wisely insisted that apologists must be out to win people, not merely arguments.
I first heard the Latin phrase suaviter in modo, fortiter in re (“gently in manner, strongly in deed”), in my first-year apologetics class at Westminster Seminary from Dr. Van Til. In interacting with others, though we do not want to compromise the substance of our message (we must give a “reasoned defense” of the Christian faith), we should present the matter in a gentle, respectful manner.
Peter’s exhortation is always in order, but it is especially appropriate in our postmodern setting, where genuine concern for those to whom we speak—communicated both verbally and nonverbally—may have a powerful impact as used by the Holy Spirit.
As we seek to speak to our neighbors about Christ—and their need of him—questions will arise: questions regarding what the Bible teaches (and perhaps expressing misconceptions that have become common in contemporary society), questions about ultimate religious authority, questions about the presence of evil in the world, and questions about the practical outworking of faith in Jesus.
Some will ask questions out of ignorance and a genuine desire to learn; others will skeptically challenge anything we might say. In some ways, the most important apologetical skills in this setting are the ability to keep listening and to roll with the punches.
Proverbs 26:4–5 sets out a two-pronged approach to confronting the folly of unbelief: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
As Bahnsen (following Cornelius Van Til) points out in his book Always Ready (chs. 14–16), these verses remind us that we cannot “answer” the unbeliever by adopting his intellectually covenant-breaking presuppositions. To do so would be disloyal to our commitment to the lordship of Christ in our thinking. It would also be futile, for we would become like the unbeliever.
On the other hand, we are encouraged to “answer a fool according to his folly.” That is, we help him see what his ultimate presuppositions about life are—and, most importantly, where those fundamental assumptions must inevitably lead him in his thinking and behavior.
This idea lends itself to a methodology of thoughtful listening and tactical questioning. If time permits, we ought to do a lot of listening. Let the other speak. Again, my experience is that “our side” is often so eager to “reduce the opposition to absurdity,” that we push others to a place to which we ought to lead them.
Asking questions that little by little will help the unbeliever discover and express his basic assumptions about life (he probably will not yet be “epistemologically self-conscious”) and reveal the implications for life of those assumptions, may go much farther in persuading him of the futility of unbelief. As always, patience is a virtue—or, as James put it, “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).
We are told that postmoderns prefer stories and images to propositions. If that is so, then we have in the Bible the perfect vehicle for reaching them, for it is “the greatest story ever told.”
While we need not be at all reluctant to express our faith in biblical propositions, it might be helpful to make greater use of the biblical story line in our evangelism and apologetic.
What better way is there to address the issue of ultimate religious authority than by setting out the story of Genesis 2–3: the Creator’s covenant-making words to Adam and Eve, the promise of covenant life, Satan’s deceitful temptation and our first parents’ foolish opting for it, and the deadly consequences of their unbelief?
What better way is there to address the problem of evil than with the story of faithful, but suffering, Job and the lessons he learned when God drew near to him in his anguish? What better way is there to explain the radical nature of conversion than by reference to Zacchaeus or Saul of Tarsus?
And, of course, the gospel narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John will introduce our blessed Lord Jesus in a way that nothing else can. There he speaks for himself, in a way especially suited to our postmodern friends and neighbors.
We have considered but a few ideas in this brief article. Much more could be—and has been—said. We in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church have a well-stocked apologetics library from Cornelius Van Til, John Frame, Greg Bahnsen, K. Scott Oliphint, and others.
We must remember, however, that “doing apologetics” is more than a mere human exercise—no matter how well intentioned.
The heart-problem of the “natural man”—including his darkened understanding and suppression of the truth (Rom. 1:18–23)—is beyond the reach of the best human argumentation and the most gentle of personal approaches. As Jesus told Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.… I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, 5).
The Holy Spirit is the ultimate evangelist and apologist. “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:26–27).
We are responsible to prepare ourselves as thoughtfully and prayerfully as we can to speak to others about Christ, but the Spirit of God alone holds the key to the hearts of men and women. So we bear our witness and answer the questions of our neighbors, all the time praying that “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25).
The author is the pastor of Bayview OPC in Chula Vista, Calif. He quotes the ESV. New Horizons, February 2015.