Here are some basic criteria which I believe everyone doing apologetics should meet before they go out to do apologetics on the Internet. While I would say that number 1 is the most important, it does not follow that subsequent numbers are arranged in order of importance. It should be noted that I myself learned some of what follows in “the school of hard knocks”–particularly the practical lessons about fighting anxiety and avoiding running into areas for which I lacked preparation. The following points are not a lecture from “on high”–they are in many ways reflections of a man who has been “tempted in all points as you are.”
1. First, be a member in good standing in a strong local church which has pastoral oversight over your apologetics activities. This is extremely important because in our day of rampant individualism it is all too easy for a person to convince himself that he has a divine calling to do apologetics, to “defend the Truth” at all costs. Most of the time this is simply over-spiritual nonsense related to the pervasive secular / sacred divide in contemporary American religious thought. Laymen want desperately to be doing “important” things for God’s Kingdom. It is thought that “just” being faithful auto mechanics or computer technicians or plumbers or housewives are not “important” things like “contending for the faith” is. I must work my 40 hours a week at my “day job,” and then come home at night to do the “important” and “spiritual” stuff on the computer. On the contrary, when we remember that Martin Luther said that if he knew Christ was coming tomorrow the first thing he would do was to plant a tree, and that William Tyndale said that there was no vocational difference between washing the dishes and preaching the Gospel, we see that there is no need to be anxious about being able to do something “spiritual,” like apologetics. All of life is spiritual. Do what God has given you do to first–like taking care of your family–and if there is any time left for the rest then do that.
That’s the ideal, of course. In real life anxiety more often than not prevails, and when it is added the fact that the Internet is the ultimate democratic medium, you have a recipe for intellectual disaster. Anyone, regardless of training or competence or attitude or station in life, can set up shop and hawk his wares to the world. Few controls exist on Internet life. This allows individuals to get online and do and say anything they want to anyone they want without (they might think) there being real-life consequences. Without some kind of regulation, the individual both has no accountability for his words to other image bearers of God, and no protection from their words to himself. Consequently, if you do not have a significant local accountability structure in your life, you should not go forth to do apologetics on the Internet. If your pastor and elders (or bishop or priest) do not know what you are doing on the Internet, or cannot or will not exercise oversight of it, you possibly shouldn’t be doing it.
2. Second, spend significant time and effort preparing for the task. Apologetics is not a game. Just because someone makes a fantastic claim about X and it really bugs you doesn’t mean that 1 Peter 3:15 requires you to “give an answer”–let alone in as short a time as possible and regardless of the present state of your knowledge about the issue. At least half of the ramped-up rhetoric of Internet apologists concerning 1 Peter 3:15 is bogus precisely because it is used to underwrite a program of anxiety-based emotional need to “refute” some “error” that is really bugging either the apologist himself or his constituency. Yet the passage as a whole teaches the opposite of anxiety and fear, and enjoins the one “giving an answer” to do so “with gentleness and respect.” Most apologists would have very little material to offer if they actually obeyed this passage of Scripture which they claim underwrites their whole program.
Many times individuals get excited about “defending the faith” and recklessly run beyond the boundaries of their competence. They do not fear anything or anyone, and figure that with all the resources available on the Internet they ought to be able to whip up a decisive “refutation” of the offending claim in short order. St. Augustine once cautioned that reckless and incompetent expounders of Scripture do more damage to the Christian cause than unbelievers. The same could be said of reckless and incompetent self-annointed “apologists.” If you haven’t spent significant time looking at a particular issue, consider whether or not you ought to portray yourself as competent to address it. By the way, “significant” time does not mean you have scrolled through a few Internet papers by someone you like, or heard a couple of his debates on tape, or even read his latest book about The Great Insidious Error of ______ twice, and taken enough bullet points from his materials to mimic his views.
Instead, spend some time getting to know the contours of a particular field of knowledge on which apologetics can be practiced. Find out who the leading scholars are who address that field and read five or six significant works on it from several of them. Read books on the subject in question by people whose basic apologetic methods you disagree with–don’t tie yourself to any one thinker, lest you become intellectually provincial and unable to think critically about things. Take extensive notes and hunt down cross-references. Try to get “inside” the minds of the major advocates of the position, to see things through their eyes, before you try to lecture others about “Truth.” Perhaps most importantly, if the issue has made you anxious or uncertain, address those aspects of your own mindset before “giving an answer” that is based on fearful ignorance and anger at someone’s “nonsense.” Aside from significant, non-threatened time spent trying to grasp an issue, chances are very good that you don’t know what you’re talking about, but are merely pretending a competence you don’t have for personal reasons which you might be better off first discussing with your pastor. If something bugs you really bad, and you don’t know a lot about it, perhaps you should talk to your spiritual authorities before strapping on a dull sword and swaggering out onto the field to hack up “errors.”
3. Third, acquire a good reference library that is not computer based. It is true that the Internet has many good resources, and there is nothing wrong with using these where they are appropriate. But “where appropriate” is a matter of patient discernment, and unfortunately one major drawback of the Internet is that it does not encourage patient discernment. The mouse begs to be clicked, clicked, clicked, and the search engine beckons too easily for “key terms” to be highlighted so as to allow a “Cliff Notes” approach to reading even good resources.
By contrast, real books encourage patient discernment precisely because working with them is slower and more labor-intensive. It takes more time to turn pages and read surrounding context and turn more pages to consult indices and appendices and endnotes than it does to click, click, click a mouse and use a search engine. While they are not infallible controls on impatience, real books do force you to slow down. This is essential to gaining a better perspective on complicated issues. Additionally, being forced to hold a book in your hands, to feel the texture and smell the odor of its pages, to actively hold it open with your fingers and physically manipulate it, reminds you that you are not a disembodied mind living in cyberspace. This, too, is essential in Internet apologetics precisely because the flickering screen upon which words seem to magically appear as your easily forgotten fingers fly over the keyboard, and the lack of the personal, bodily presence of those you are laying into about their “errors,” too easily creates a gnostic world where it’s never “personal,” but only about “Truth.” This is a lie, of course, but it’s a pervasive and not easily recognized one.
Lastly, acquiring a library of real books shows that you are putting your money where your mouth is in terms of holding yourself forth as a student of various issues and an apologist for various positions. It shows that you are not so lazy as to think that the Internet, which you pay all of ten or fifteen bucks a month for, is your sole source of information and therefore the final arbiter of the limits of your perspectives on issues. Buying books requires a much higher level of commitment–one that is much more appropriate to the gravity of the apologetics task. It shows that you understand that for all the good resources which are on the Internet, there are many more which are not, and you are committed to having these available for your apologetic endeavors.
4. Fourth, familiarize yourself with the different schools of apologetics. Many people rush into apologetics on the basis of getting excited about the discipline from having read a handful of materials by one particular author who really impresses them with his knowledge and rhetoric. Often enough, they unwittingly lock themselves into this one individual’s school of apologetics without becoming aware of and knowledgeable about different schools.
And so apologetic neophytes enthusiastically read Cornelius Van Til on why classical apologetics is an exercise of God-dishonoring “autonomy”–and then fail to read R.C. Sproul on why Van Til is nearly a fideist. They read Josh McDowell on “evidences that demand a verdict”–and then fail to read Norman Geisler on the things that enable a person to even discern “evidence” in the first place. They read Tertullian on why Jerusalem has no relationship to Athens–and then fail to read Thomas Aquinas on why they do. Intellectual myopia thus easily develops, and the person becomes an expert on dissecting the views of others without being able to offer a single critical thought about his own. Advocates of other schools are easily transformed from “people who think differently” to “sophists who don’t like plain truth.” Real apologetic substance, real apologetic dialogue, withers on the vine.
Additionally, try to gain a reliable, solid foundation in the history of apologetics. Many people rush into apologetics because they want to demolish evolutionism or Romanism or Mormonism or some other pressingly disturbing -ism, but they lack acquaintance with the progress of apologetics through time and so they lack both the ability to contextualize their own perceptions of “error” and the ability to access deeper intellectual wells than those dug by themselves and their own contemporaries. I will go so far as to say that everyone who wants to do apologetics on the Internet should be required to read and interact with at least ten or twelve examples of apologetics texts from diverse eras before they go out to do apologetics on the Internet. Be eclectic: read Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Lactantius, Anselm, Aquinas, Pascal, Butler, Lewis, Schaeffer, Kreeft, Geisler, and Zacharias.
Obviously, gaining such a diverse grounding will not make you infallible evaluator of apologetic positions and arguments. Nor can you ensure that you will not get any bad arguments from any of the sources about subjects or other apologists. McDowell might not like how Geisler characterizes his system, or classicists might be accused by Van Tilians of warping their school’s views. Schaeffer might give you a caricature of Aquinas, and Kreeft might overlook distinctions in sola Scriptura views. Misunderstandings happen, even when everyone has the best of intentions. Nevertheless, if you don’t read widely how are you going to know what’s out there, what’s been said and done, and what still remains to be said and done? How else will you have solid ground on which to stand while doing apologetics?
5. Fifth, read widely, well beyond the limits of apologetics itself. If no man is an island, so too is no intellectual discipline. All intellectual disciplines are related to each other, because human life under God is an organic whole and human beings are all bearers of the same image. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but having some significant knowledge of American literature in the 19th century or the range of Medieval philosophical opinions about optics or the development and overthrow of tyranny in Ancient Greece can all actually help you be a better apologist. This is because the field of knowledge to which you will have access will be much wider than if you read only apologetics books. You will have more tools in your mental toolbox, more understanding of the shape and scope of the issues about which you are carrying on your apologetics, more context in which to set the issues about which you are concerned, and, quite possibly, even more ability to critically engage both your own take on the world and that of your opponents.
The bottom line is that if you want to be an apologist, you can’t just read books with titles like The Most Excellent Handbook of Apologetics Arguments or Exposing the Errors of ______ or Fifty-Two Plain Biblical Proofs That _____ is True. You also have to read books about history and philosophy and political theory and literature and art and architecture and music and theology and science. Indeed, one of the best intellectual exercises you could ever perform against atheism would be to read and critically compare the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” in Melville’s Moby Dick with the chapter “The Grand Inquisitor” in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Even novels are relevant to doing apologetics. Limiting yourself to books labeled “apologetics” texts will, no doubt about it, limit the horizons of your mind and will at times make your apologetics reek of provincial arrogance.
These are five basic recommendations regarding responsibly doing apologetics on the Internet. As a parting thought, I would strongly recommend memorizing C.S. Lewis’ The Apologist’s Evening Prayer, and referring back to it whenever particular apologetics encounters do not seem to be going as well as you’d like.