The word “apologetics” comes from the Greek apologia. This is the word that was used in the ancient Greek and later the Roman court systems to describe giving a defense against a prosecution.
The basic word apologia appears in Acts 22:1 and 25:16 in the context of the Apostle Paul giving a verbal defense of his faith before the authorities. So, apologetics is essentially “giving a defense of the Christian Faith when people raise objections to it or ask questions about it.
Why should we be interested in apologetics? The most basic reason is that there are many examples in the Bible itself of God’s people “giving a defense” against objections to their faith.
The locus classicus, or classical place in the Bible, that talks about apologetics is I Peter 3:15, which says – “Sanctify the Lord in your hearts, and always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within you…”
That is the Scripture that is most often quoted as a reason for doing apologetics. It is important to understand, however, that that is not all that verse says. Most who quote the verse to show why apologetics should be done do not quote the last part of it, which says, “…with gentleness and reverence.”
That’s very important! We are, indeed, supposed to be always ready to “give an answer,” but we are supposed to give that answer “with gentleness and reverence.” The next verse, verse 16, goes on to say, “Having a good conscience, that those who speak evil of you may be ashamed of their false accusations about your good faith in Christ.”
So then, the purpose of apologetics is to answer those who raise objections to or ask questions about our faith in Christ, so that we can show that we have a good conscience and make them ashamed to speak ill of us because of our faith in Christ.
Unbelief’s Questions and Objections
There are an enormous number of objections to the Faith and questions about it floating around in today’s world, and they arise from practically every area of human experience. There are historical objections, philosophical objections, scientific objections, aesthetic objections, moral objections, and so on.
There are two basic ways that Christians approach these various objections: either we can take them seriously on their own terms and seek to give intelligent, responsible answers to them, or we can refuse to take them seriously on their own terms and so instead seek to win the battle rhetorically. We have The Truth, They do not, and what’s more, They are stupid idolators who know the The Truth but refuse to give assent to it.
The second approach seems to be borne out by Romans 1:18 ff., in which Paul seems to mock unbelievers as fools who have deliberately exchanged the truth about God for lies because they do not like the truth and have set themselves against God.
The first approach, taking the unbelievers seriously on their own terms, seems to be borne out by Acts 17, the famous encounter between Paul and the pagan Athenians on Mars Hill.
In light of passages such as these, a pretty serious disagreement that comes up among Christians as they seek to do apologetics well. Should we follow the model of Romans 1 or the model of Acts 17? Romans 1 is extremely confrontational; Acts 17 is extremely personal, really, almost downright friendly.
In other words, is apologetics – the giving of defense speeches – prolegomena or just another form of witnessing? The answer to this question can directly affect how we approach our task to answer the questions and objections of unbelievers.
Prolegomena means “things said beforehand,” before the main body of a message is given. In this context it means that apologetics is what some have called “pre-evangelism,” or, the process of removing intellectual obstacles and excuses that people put up so that the claims of the Gospel do not seem quite so powerful to them.
Since it is “things said beforehand,” prolegomena is not a matter of confronting someone with a demand to do something. By its very nature as a rational enterprise, it has to be more “low-key,” focused more upon setting the stage for the main message. It is not itself the main message.
So, if apologetics is prolegomena, then the way we approach the objections and questions of unbelievers is to answer their questions and objections with gentleness and respect, treating the questions and objections as if they are good ones deserving of good answers.
If we approach apologetics as prolegomena, we will not see its goal as winning the soul of the unbeliever, but only as removing obstacles to his properly hearing the Gospel, which comes after we’ve discussed his objections.
Witnessing, by contrast, is a common word for presenting people with the Gospel and calling them to repent of their sin and come to Christ.
If we approach apologetics as just another form of witnessing, we will present our defense arguments as demands for repentance. This is incorrect, because repentance only comes when God grants it, and He grants it in the context of the preaching of the Gospel. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17).
Also, the natural man cannot understand the things of the spirit because they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14), and it is God who sovereignly raises spiritually dead men up from their graves and makes them alive (Col. 2:13).
In this light, I think the way to evaluate whether apologetics should proceed in Romans 1 style or Acts 17 style is to be aware of the context of each of these passages. It is a generally accepted rule of biblical interpretation that the interpreter should observe genre and context, and allow these, and not his own preexisting theological commitment or system, to inform his interpretation of the text.
Romans is a letter written by a Christian to other Christians for the purpose of making the theological case that all men are sinners and justly deserve God’s wrath. It is a very rhetorical passage that is striving to make a universally condemnatory point so that it can subsequently make a very particular redemptive point.
Acts 17, on the other hand, is a direct, face-to-face encounter between a Christian and unbelievers for the purpose of persuading the unbelievers that, on the basis of things that they already know to be true, they ought to go the whole way and embrace the full message about God made manifest in Christ.
The defense of the Gospel is not itself the Gospel. Apologetics, then, is not the same thing as preaching the Gospel. Its goal is not to save a man’s soul, but to illumine his mind in the way that the Church Fathers called preparatio evangelii, preparation for the Gospel. It is not another way to demand the repentance of the unbeliever. It is only a way to remove objections to the Gospel so that the preaching of the Gospel is not obscured by extraneous matters.
As R.C. Sproul wonderfully expressed it, “If theology is the queen of the sciences, apologetics is her handmaid. It introduces people to the queen and demonstrates her majesty.”
Dialectic vs. Eristic
Dialectic means respectful, rational conversation. It’s ordinary usage in Greek referred to philosophical discussions, such as those in which men like Socrates and Aristotle engaged. But we should recognize that dialectic is not just for pagans. Scripture itself uses the word to describe several of Paul’s defense speeches.
For example, in Acts 17, in both Thessalonica and Athens, the word dialegomenos, meaning “to argue” in the sense of making rational arguments in conversation with other people, is used of Paul’s attempts to persuade the unbelievers of the truth about Jesus. The same word comes up in Acts 18:4 and Acts 19:8 in the context of Paul’s arguments in the Jewish synagogues.
Eristic, on the other hand, means arguing just for the sake of arguing, or arguing to fulfill some emotional need in ourselves. The Greek word eris means “strife.” Several places in the New Testament warn us to avoid strife and instead to cultivate such godly virtues as peace, joy, contentment, and a love that covers a multitude of sins.
Eristic can occur when we feel threatened by another viewpoint and respond out of our feelings of being threatened. It can also occur when we think we know a whole lot about something, and our opponent does not, and so we are going to let him have it, to show how ignorant he is and how informed we ourselves are.
Apologetics should not follow the eristic mode, because it is not about arguing to prove ourselves superior, or arguing because we like to argue, or lashing out because we feel threatened and feel we need to say something in response.
A key point: apologetics properly considered is not unremitting ideological warfare against other human beings, as some maintain. It is defensive, not offensive. We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against demonic powers – we may be talking to an atheist or Muslim or a Hindu, but that human person is not our enemy: the demonic forces of falsehood and deception that motivate his position are our enemies.
We are fighting the spiritual forces of wickedness in high places, and this sort of fighting is done with spiritual weapons. What we want to be doing toward the human person who faces us with objections and questions is to talk to them, not attempt to destroy them. If apologetics is giving a defense of our faith, then we must attempt to persuade them of our position. That is what a defense speech in a court of law is about, and again, the term apologia originally came from the legal world.
Consider what King Agrippa says to Paul after Paul’s defense speech: “almost you persuade me to become a Christian” (Acts 26:28). Also consider some of the hearers at the Areopagus, who, after Paul’s discourse said, “we want to hear you some more on this matter” (Acts 17:32). Because of Paul’s defense speeches, his apologetics, the people in these passages were wavering on the edge of being persuaded.
This all sounds nice, but of course there are people out there who do not wish to be persuaded of Christianity and who will, in fact, treat their interactions with us as warfare and ourselves as objects to be destroyed. In such cases, we may reluctantly, have to go to war. But warfare is not apologetics. Warfare is more properly called polemics – apologetics is “defense;” polemics is “attack.”
Sometimes apologetics and polemics may overlap. Let’s say we are defending creation against evolution, and in the course of our positive defense of creation we find ourselves making negative arguments against evolution. At that point, we are transitioning from apologetics, defense, to polemics, attack.
However, whether doing apologetics or polemics we must remember to conduct ourselves dialectically, not eristically. Dialectic means conversational. It is a give-and-take process of reasoning with someone in order to persuade them of the truth of our position. Again, we are talking to a human being made in the image of God, not monsters. We are trying to persuade a person, not destroy an enemy.
Eristic is entirely different. An eristic approach to another person is an approach that is based on hostility, not on gentleness and respect, as 1 Pet. 3:15 enjoins us. Our goal when we do apologetics should be to model dialectic, not eristic.
Consider the way that the Apostle Paul treated the pagan idolators on Mars Hill in Acts 17. Does he mock them to scorn? Call them stupid for not believing truth? Treat them like enemies to be destroyed? No. Paul treats the pagan idolators as human beings deserving respect because they are image bearers of God and, significantly, because for all their paganism and idolatry, there are in fact a number of truths about God and God’s world that they know, and Paul uses these as stepping stones to proclaim what they do not know.
Unfortunately, the line between dialectic and eristic is sometimes easily blurred because there often seems to be so much at stake. We can all too easily begin to feel like we must defeat the skeptic or else the Faith itself will suffer defeat.
This is a false perception: Truth considered in itself is not dependent on anyone’s ability to cogently state it and defeat all comers in battle; likewise, Christianity is not dependent on our defenses of it.
The eristic approach is also easy to get wrapped up in because apologetics is often very “heady” stuff. It often involves heavy duty intellectual content, and it is very easy to get puffed up about all that we think we know in our heads.
This too is a false perception: no matter how much we learn there will always be 1,000 things that we know next to nothing or perhaps even nothing about. The more we learn, the more we should remember the ignorance we came out of, and so the more we should try to cultivate humility in how we present what we know to others. This is especially true because we are defending our Faith, which is close to our heart.
A passion for truth is not the same thing as a passion for fighting. Again, we need to remember that we are talking to human beings made in God’s image, not monsters. We are trying to persuade them, not destroy them. As Augustine wisely said in the City of God, Christians should always remember that God’s kingdom gets its members from the Devil’s kingdom, and so we should “bear with their hostility until we find them confessing the faith” (I.35).
 Classical Apologetics (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 1984), pg. 16.