The Danger of Being ‘Too Good’ at Apologetics
March 6, 2013 § 8 Comments
It’s the commission of every believer to “give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15) Apologists exercise a particular desire to engage in rational debate in an effort to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.” (2 Cor. 10:5) We of course feel obligated to be good at it, but that doesn’t guarantee the acceptance of Christianity by skeptics.
A good argument is often rationally ignored in a debate. Since Genesis 3, the fallen heart of man is bent toward self-deceit(1), and as Romans 1:25 says, is more than willing to trade the “truth for a lie.” Only the Holy Spirit can open eyes to the truth of Christianity and the Gospel and bring a soul to see past the obstacles.
Sometimes though, I think apologists can put forth a logically impenetrable defense and actually become one of the obstacles. An impregnable argument can be a complete turn-off, and that’s actually not what we want. We want to demolish arguments, but not the human spirit in the process. As the mantra goes, the Christian’s goal is to win souls, not arguments. In thinking about past debates (and I’m sure others have seen this) there are times when an argument really comes together, as the result of the Spirit’s guidance, and practice, and by the humble discovery of the validity of Christianity’s deepest foundations. But it comes together as such a solid, air-tight case that the unbelieving opponent simply checks out of the conversation. And still in unbelief. Many times I’ve experienced an online debate ending without an atheist’s response, just when it was getting really ‘good’. I somehow delivered a debate-ender. By having the last word I would feel accomplished in demolishing their arguments and faithfully defending Christianity—then perform a self-check for pride. But now I wonder if I demolished any spirit they had to continue to seek the truth from me, or any believer. Winning the debate can mean losing the debate when the opportunity to win someone for Christ is lost or shortened.
I suddenly feel the urge to re-write some previous posts and re-do some previous debates (Oops… too late for that last one).
So going forward, how do we keep such a wall from going up? Colossians 4:6 gives us an answer: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Show grace in your defense. Grace is, after all, what we preach, why and how we are in a position to preach, and the desired result of it all: Sinners coming to terms with God’s grace through Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:8,9). Do we show grace by intentionally presenting weak arguments to keep an unbeliever coming back? I don’t think so. I suppose it will take on different forms for different apologists, but we don’t want to compromise the truth just to make it taste better, but maybe our form. Here are three ways.
1. USE QUESTIONS
The Bible provides the only rational basis for objective truth, rooted in the nature of God, and no other worldview offers this.
Christians claim the Bible as the only rational basis for objective truth, rooted in the nature of God. Can you think of another worldview that does this?
The two propositions above are saying the same thing. Which one feels more open and friendly? The one ending in a question, doesn’t it? The objective truth of the Bible feels like it needs to be stated firmly as a stone wall. Could what you’re stating also be put in question form? Questions invite further dialog, as long as they are not snide or obviously rhetorical. Ask questions that should logically lead them to the same conclusion that you were planning to assert with a firm statement. Invite them to get there using their own cognitive abilities rather than forcing your conclusions on them. They need to know that you still want to discuss it.
2. USE GENTLENESS AND RESPECT
Grace comes in other forms too, from the admonition of 1 Peter 3:15 to give a defense “with gentleness and respect.” Concede good points made whenever they appear, and let your opponent know that you appreciate their time and that you’ve learned a lot from what they’ve offered (this is always true for me; I learn something about my opponent’s worldview at every encounter). At least in written correspondence, mood and temperament is often not clear, so clarify a gentle and respectful demeanor in debate forums with fewer ALL-CAPS and exclamation marks, and more happy emoticons. You may sacrifice professionalism there, between it’s a small sacrifice. Note the difference between PLEASE! and Please. 🙂
3. KEEP IT SIMPLE
Be brief, if you can. A lengthy post can be daunting and discourage response. Don’t launch every point in a single comment or post, unless you’re responding to series of points. I’ve found that the more stripped down my dialog is, the shorter the response, unless you’re met with a lot of extra rhetorical or emotional fluff—which you are free to ignore. Try to be succinct, yet thorough.
These approaches may seem like we are depending on and playing off of an opponent’s emotional responses to keep the discussion going. I’ve debated with many unbelievers who rely heavily on emotion to make their points, so the approach is fitting. When right reasoning is corrupt by sin, we resort to emotions. Those who challenge our faith are God’s human creation.
Ultimately we are only playing a part in leading others to Christ—God opens eyes and turns hearts. But God uses Christians and our apologetics, so the part we play shouldn’t drive seekers away, but keep them seeking. All debates must end, but may they not end because an opponent feels cornered and utterly beaten. If we are rejected, let it not be because skeptics don’t feel as though we want to listen and learn their position. Let skeptics reject the Gospel of salvation when it’s graciously presented in truth and love. Even if rejected, our apologia can be a seed that will, Lord willing, take root.
[Here is a debate of mine where I think grace was effectively applied: A Doubter Challenges Christianity.
And here is one where I think I lacked in it, effectively driving home the argument but shutting down the discussion, really before any clear presentation of the Gospel on my part: Evidence for God in the Laws of Logic.]
1) The Crucial Concept of Self-Deception in Presuppositional Apologetics, by Dr. Greg Bahnsen
I don’t think it’s possible to be “too good at apologetics.” You can be lacking in other necessary qualities, but the problem can never be that you’re “too good at apologetics.”
Yes, you should absolutely be as gracious and respectful and humble as possible, but at some point, if the discussion continues to its logical conclusion, if the other person doesn’t happily embrace the fact that Christianity is true, there can only be one of two other possible outcomes: 1) they begrudgingly concede that it’s true, but they don’t WANT to worship our God or follow our Messiah, or 2) they try to save face by clinging to their intellectual dishonesty by reiterating some argument you’ve already demolished or some bit of misinformation you’ve already debunked and corrected.
At that point, all you can do is– as graciously as possible– call them on it. But it’s hard to say, in effect, “You’re being intellectually dishonest. Your rejection of Jesus Christ is not from any lack of evidence or any inability on your part to apprehend it, because there is no rational or moral justification for it at this point. It’s a character defect. It’s because you prefer sin and evil to truth and faithfulness– Light has come into the world, but men love darkness instead of light.”
You don’t have to say that in so many words, and you can try to sugarcoat it, and you can try to even things out by confessing your own sinful proclivities, but at the end of the day– if you’ve successfully communicated your point– that the gospel and God’s claim on them are true, and they’re deliberately choosing to be on the wrong side of truth– they’re going to understand what you’re saying, and they will hate you for it.
But what’s the alternative? Trying to concede some middle ground so they can save face? But, that’s not really an option… You can’t do that without betraying the cause of Christ by agreeing with the person, to some extent, that they’re justified in the position they hold that puts them at odds with God. There’s no way to be faithful to the Holy Spirit AND also concede ground to an opponent trying to wriggle out of the right conclusion so they can maintain their intellectual pretensions.
Eventually, you just have to shake the dust off your feet and leave people to their own devices… and to God’s judgment. Be gracious and respectful, but NEVER be afraid to be “too good at apologetics,” and never think you have to politely tolerate intellectual dishonesty for the sake of “grace.”
At some point, we have to accept the fact that the gospel offends people, and if the world hates Jesus Christ, it will hate us as well if we’re faithful to him, and no amount of grace on our part will change that, and the fact that people hate us isn’t, necessarily, an accurate indicator that we’ve failed to be gracious. In fact, “grace” can very often just be a pretext for going along to get along, and for compromising God’s truth for the sake of popularity.
Thanks for the comment, thethirdhelix. I think you have a firm grasp on the objective. I put “too good” in quotes in the title because that isn’t quite what I mean. We should endeavor to be excellent at whatever we do, especially defending and explaining the Gospel, and with grace correctly applied. Some approaches center exclusively on the intellect, and that’s an easy track to fall into, or as you said, we can (but shouldn’t) use grace as an excuse for tolerating intellectual dishonesty. Finding that right track is the challenge. Well said. 🙂
Yeah, I don’t know if you can be “too good” at apologetics. I also think you’re being entirely too hard on yourself by thinking of a good and solid argument as an obstacle. That is pretty dangerous turf to step on in my opinion. You plant the seeds, let the Holy Spirit do the rest.
With all that said, the advice you gave is solid in my opinion. Trying to use more questions and less “factoid-slinging” is good and you see Christ Himself used a lot of questions. Using gentleness and respect is something we need to do and can be hard when we see that our opponent’s case is completely off-base. Keeping it simple is also good advice, responding to every single point is likely a waste of time, so keep it focused and simple is usually (not always) the way to go.
Overall, I would say to anyone, this is good advice to follow but don’t let guilt drag you down. Conviction of sin is from God, guilt is oftentimes from the enemy and is a tactic to get us to stop witnessing. Oftentimes we have the best of intentions with guilt, but it can lead to bad results. You may want to be a “better” Christian and start to feel guilty you’re not a “better” one, but then you just end up locked in a guilt spiral and your relationship with God suffers. Remember we have grace from God too. 🙂
Thanks, J. Morales. I guess the self-scrutiny I applied in this post is to keep me focused on the aim of apologetics. At the same time I agree that we are sowing seeds anyway. 🙂 Appreciate your insight and encouragement!
I think the greatest possible mistake we can fall into is depending on our own knowledge and experience to answer, rather than depending on the Holy Spirit to lead us according to the promises given to us (e.g. Acts 1:8). The Holy Spirit will not only use our knowledge, but will also lead us into how we present it “with gentleness and respect”. Trying to do God’s work without the Spirit of God is simply wrong… and a sure-fired way to fall into pride (or despondency if it does not work)!
i would agree that any work done apart from the Spirit of God is futile at best and counterproductive at worst, but I think that caution has been overstated in our day and age, Chavoux. I think our danger lies in the opposite direction today…
Yes, knowledge puffs up… but only when we’re seeking it solely for our own aggrandizement. In that regard, yes– a little knowledge is dangerous. But if we’re honestly and earnestly seeking knowledge (as 2 Peter 1:5 exhorts us)– first for our own edification, as well as to teach and build others up– we’ll soon learn how much we have to learn. There’s this thing called the “Dunning-Krueger Effect,” according to which (in a nutshell), proficiency in a field actually erodes confidence, while outsiders presume expertise simply because they don’t know how much they don’t know. So, I think the more knowledge we have to rely on, the less inclined we are to rely on it.
Practically-speaking, I’m not sure most people know *how* to “depend on the Holy Spirit.” They think it means leaning back and coasting and relying on feelings and intuition and just passively waiting for God to do things for us and around us while we do nothing. That approach tends to exalt inaction, ignorance, and disinterest as virtues. We’re told by Jesus, though, that the Advocate will do His work by *reminding* us of what He taught– He brings to the forefront the knowledge and experience we’ve been disciplined to obtain (John 14:26).
Also, Jesus said, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. What you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Paul said that WE– the Church– are the Temple of God on earth, the very Body of Jesus Christ. We are God’s agents in the world.
So, yes– we should be encouraged to confidence by our trust that the Holy Spirit will work through us, but also realize that it is ONLY through us that the Holy Spirit will act. If we don’t bind/loose it on earth, it won’t be bound/loosed in heaven. In fact, at no point in history or the Bible has God ever done anything in the world that He did not do through a person or group of people. He saved life on earth from the flood– through Noah. He freed the Israelites– through Moses. He revealed Himself to people– through prophets and apostles and the God-Man Jesus.
Our collective failure to grasp and accept this– our own role in God’s redemptive plan– is why Christianity is dying in the west.
Hi Helix, I don’t want to denigrate knowledge or the need for more knowledge, both of the Lord and of his word.
Nor do I want to encourage passivity… If we do not have the Spirit of Messiah, we do not belong to Him (Rom.8:9) and if we are filled with the Spirit, we _will_ be witnesses. If we are not actively witnessing to Jesus Christ, something is seriously wrong in our relationship with Him… something that demands repentance (Rev.2&3). Trust (faith) that does not result in actions, is not trust (faith) at all, but is dead (James 2).
You can call me Brian. 🙂
I wasn’t implying that you, necessarily, represent the attitudes against which I wrote. However, I’ve met a lot of people in the church who use that rational as a license– a celebration, even– of passivity and laziness, so it needed to be said.
I don’t know that faithful witnessing is inevitable even for sincere Christians, though. First off, there’s something to be said for the fact that there’s a pandemic in our civilization of self-identified “Christians” who are indoctrinated and conditioned to identify with a certain widespread and normative version of “Christianity” who are NOT born again and do not possess the Spirit of God, but are assured that they are because they affirm a particular doctrinal checklist.
Even for genuine, regenerate Christians, though– the New Testament is packed with exhortations and warnings addressed to them against complacency and passivity, urging them to “make every effort” at spiritual discipline and– almost frantically– working to forewarn them against deception and distraction. Reading Hebrews 5:11-6:9, for instance, should tell us that “True Christians” are by no means *inevitably* on the right path in terms of preparation for/execution of Christ’s cause. We can’t assume that they WILL be witnesses– much less effective ones. We have to be proactive about it.