Tag Archives: apologetics


Sorry Not Sorry: We Can Do Better Than Apologetics

“Apologetics” are not “apologies” in the sense of regret or contrition, they are reasoned defenses of beliefs or philosophies. Christian apologetics seek to defend the inherent integrity of either the Bible or Christian doctrine or theology. In my opinion, too many Christians rely on recycled apologetic talking points to avoid the hard and risky work of actually wrestling with issues and problems. And while the pretense of apologetic work has been to “win others to Christ,” the reality is that it exists primarily to reassure believers and inoculate them against questions and doubts. 

The Origins of Christian Apologetics

In the early centuries of the common era, church fathers educated in Greek philosophy and reason took up the cause of defending Christianity against popular schools of thought or rival Christian thinkers. Their work took the form of books, lectures, and tractates, many of which survive to this day. Eventually orthodoxies (plural) emerged as a result of these apologetic battles, the arguments of the losers being labeled “heresy,” literally “choice” or “opinion” (not “satanic deception from the bowels of the abyss”).

Of course, no one ever thought they were defending a heresy. All the early Christian thinkers understood themselves to be writing solid apologetics, even the likes of Marcion, the gnostics, the docetists, etc. Our view of that era is somewhat skewed by the fact that most of the surviving works were written by the winners, the forgers of orthodoxy, and in many cases our only access to the “heretics” is through orthodox criticisms of them. We are listening in on one half of an ancient argument and trusting that they are being fair to their opponents.

Modern Christian Apologetics

Apologetics remain popular in conservative Christian and evangelical circles today, though perhaps not as much as in the late twentieth century. The seventies, eighties, and nineties saw a glut of apologetic books by authors like Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, Ravi Zacharias and many others, with titles like “Evidence That Demands a Verdict” and “The Case For Christ.” While some of these authors engage in philosophical argumentation somewhat akin to that of the ancient apologists, by far most of modern apologetics is concerned with answering specific criticisms of scripture or of Christian doctrines from skeptics and nonbelievers. These books function as reference manuals for Christians eager to defuse troubling claims and to explain away apparent discrepancies.

I confess that for a season in my life I was obsessed with apologetics and the notion that I could simply look up any topic or scripture reference and find definitive explanations to refute or dismiss any “attack” from any critic. But very quickly I lost my faith in the apologists and their answers for a variety of reasons. For one thing, any critically thinking person ought to be suspicious of an author who has a quick and tidy answer to every objection. The very premise that the biblical texts and thousands of years of interpretive tradition could be reduced to a catalog of pithy and “correct” answers belies the obvious complexity and subjectivity of the material being defended. Meanwhile, the more I learned to study and consider this material for myself, the less satisfying the apologetics seemed to be.

The Sorry State of Apologetics

I’m not saying that apologetics are never appropriate or have no value. There are indeed specious and unwarranted claims about Christianity and the Bible that can be answered by reason and scholarship. Some of my own posts read like apologetics. But the premise and posture of modern Christian apologetics has been that every criticism is inherently wrong and motivated by evil, and every apologetic response inherently correct and authoritative. What’s missing is space for introspection, learning, and the simple possibility that (gasp!) we might be wrong about something. Ultimately, apologetics has become another firewall on the closed authoritarian network of American Christianity.

I see at least two distinct problems with the apologetic posture of modern christendom. On the one hand, apologetics are a poor substitute for real scholarship, and rely too much on charismatic “experts.” Christians who rely on apologetics are really relying on apologists, expecting them to have done all the heavy lifting of studying and translating and interpreting and arguing behind the scenes before delivering distilled “truth” in the form of their books and lectures. In that kind of culture, credentials and credibility are everything, and even the suggestion of misrepresentation can bring the whole house of cards crashing down (see the recent flap over Ravi Zacharias and his honorary doctorates). We all expect authors and speakers to be experts in their field, but the burden placed on Christian apologists to speak definitively on behalf of God AND scholarship is more than anyone could bear.

At the same time, the facade of certainty and expertise required by Christian apologetics also lends itself to intellectual dishonesty. Most of the eager consumers of apologetic books and workshops aren’t looking to learn or grow, they are looking for proof and vindication. Would those same readers and listeners be interested in material that challenged or upset their presuppositions? It is fallacious to play at scholarship when it suits your cause only to reject and ignore it the rest of the time. Speaking personally, it wasn’t until I allowed critical thinking and scholarship to shatter my assumptions and expectations that my faith began to come alive.  No one likes having the rug pulled out from beneath them, but that is often how we learn the most profound and liberating lessons. Many Christian apologists work overtime to deny their devotees this invaluable experience.

When it comes to scholarship and reason, Christians would do well to expand their horizons beyond pre-packaged theological answer books. Learning to critically interact with language, history, and diverse perspectives within Christianity and beyond is a way of expressing devotion and faith without closing our ears and minds. Intellectual honesty is one of the tastiest flavors of honesty. 

Jesus Confounds the Scholars in the Temple; Etching by Jan Luyken.

Smarter Than God

Christians who explore scholarship or otherwise demonstrate curiosity and a willingness to question tradition are often met with disapproval and suspicion by other Christians. I’ve experienced this myself since attending seminary and even more since blogging about issues of Bible interpretation. I see it happening to others all the time, especially online. One particular phrase that comes up again and again and encapsulates the pushback experienced by curious Christians is “smarter than God.” As in, “you think you’re smarter than God?” It’s a religious variation on “too smart for your own good.”

Publicly question the traditional reading of a Bible passage, dissect the logic of a Christian aphorism, or voice an unpopular political opinion and you’re likely to run up against this warning. But is it actually possible to understand too much about your religion, or about anything? Is it really dangerous to seek deeper understanding or to change your mind about important issues? Is there a threshold of knowledge or intellect beyond which God can no longer guarantee your safety and well being? Of course not. What a dumb idea.  Continue reading

Does the Bible “endorse” or “condemn” cultural institutions?

Critics of the Bible contend that it tacitly endorses harmful institutions like slavery, polygamy, leviration, the subjugation of women, ritualistic violence, and war. Few would deny that, on the surface at least, Bible texts provide a great deal of ammunition for such critiques. A popular Christian apologetic response, however, claims that the Bible cannot technically endorse anything sinful, and that, interpreted in the proper context, it actually condemns these institutions with divine authority. A rather empty expression of this assertion has been popping up in my Twitter and Facebook feeds in the form of this cartoon, but it has been argued with more dilligence and plausibility by apologist pastors like Tim Keller and D.A. Carson. For most evangelicals, this has become “common wisdom,” something everyone should know about how to read the Bible correctly. But does this truly and effectively answer the criticism? Is it clear from a plain and honest reading that the Bible denounces institutions like slavery and polygamy? The answer, like the Bible itself, is rather complex.

The Bible is fundamentally polyvocal, meaning that it is comprised of many diverse perspectives collected together. Interpretive communities (like churches and denominations) may emphasize certain thematic threads and choose to recognize these as a unifying divine “voice,” but the uninterpreted texts remain undeniably diverse and no two Christian interpreters have read every passage in the library in the same way. The problem with claims that the Bible “endorses” or “condemns” an idea or institution is that they typically sidestep the admittedly difficult work of interacting honestly with the various voices represented therein. While I personally believe it is possible to discover within the Bible an inspired trajectory away from harmful human systems and institutions, it is simply less than honest to say that the whole Bible explicitly and uniformly condemns them.

“Biblical” Marriage?

Marriage provides an interesting test case. In the Hebrew Bible polygamy is the norm and the ancient Israelites practice a form of levirate marriage in which a man’s brother is expected to marry and reproduce with his widow. Tim Keller has famously argued that the Genesis stories represent an implicit condemnation of these practices, since they yield chaotic results in every generation. There was a time when I found this response compelling and even echoed it in my own writing and teaching, but now I’m not so sure.

For one thing, it is a distinctly modern maneuver which projects our type of sensibility onto an ancient text. These institutions are absurd from our vantage point, but in the world which produced the Bible they were mundane. That’s not to say that the authors of scripture would refrain from decrying something just because it was familiar (prophets often passionately denounce the status quo). However, the Bible stories in question never explicitly censure the marriage practices of the patriarchs and, moreover, other texts that do address and regulate marriage for the Israelite community neither criticize nor prohibit polygamy or levirate marriage. In fact, by regulating these institutions the Torah laws (said to come directly from the mouth of God) might be said to affirm them. Later, in the New Testament, there are strong hints that a form of monogamous marriage has become culturally normative, though there is no formal repudiation of polygamy from any figure or author. Both Paul and Jesus seem to favor celibacy but acknowledge marriage as a fitting compromise for those with sexual inclinations.

Looking at this brief survey, can we say with confidence that the Bible either “condemns” or “endorses” polygamy, leviration, or any form of monogamous marriage? I don’t think we can. Different texts presuppose different forms of marriage. Different writers/speakers present different opinions about the nature and value of marriage. No specific form of marriage is ever denounced or recommended. It depends on what passage you’re reading.

Principles, Not a Blueprint

What the Bible does provide with remarkable consistency is spiritual and moral guidance regarding fidelity to relationships within one’s cultural context, whatever it might be. “Do not commit adultery” is a majority report, to coin a phrase. God’s people do not violate their covenants with one another or abuse their neighbors’ covenants. How this plays out in regard to marriage will look very different from culture to culture, from era to era. Attempts to reconstruct the cultural norms of an ancient world to solve the moral dilemmas of today are misguided and do real damage to the people caught up in the reconstruction.

It would be very convenient (for some, at least) if the Bible pronounced with more clarity which cultural institutions were acceptable and which were dangerous, but this is not what its contents were designed to do. Instead, they appealed to personal integrity and moral faithfulness within the cultural structures of their own time. It may not be easy to extrapolate and adapt those principles within a very different world, but that is the way forward for Christians who cherish the Bible and desire that it should inform the way they live. We seek principles that bear good fruit in the arena of real life, not a blueprint for conformity to an ancient ideal.

Of course, this question gets even more colorful when discussing topics like slavery and so-called “holy” war. Unlike marriage, these institutions are (almost, God help us) universally repudiated in the modern Western world. Exploring the Bible’s presentation of these realities is no less complicated and, frankly, often more disturbing. For my part, I would point to the divine voice, most loudly audible in the teaching and legacy of Jesus, that forges a radical trajectory away from exploitation and violence and toward empathy and egalitarian love. In that sense, I believe that the Bible represents a powerful, even heavenly condemnation of institutions that enslave and victimize. But this strand has to be discovered and embraced, and to find it we must be prepared to interact honestly and boldly with an ancient and disarmingly foreign library of books.

At the heart of this question is a bigger question, one that opens a larger can of worms. At the core of the evangelical response outlined above is the presupposition that God in some sense authored the Bible, and that criticism of the text thus amounts to criticism of God, which is unacceptable. This relates to the very volatile “inerrancydebate, and illustrates one of my major criticisms of inerrancy as a belief. If the evangelical’s first sworn duty is to defend God and His reputation, and if the Bible is somehow God’s “autobiography,” then it too must be defended at all cost. The result is that scripture cannot be read with open eyes, mind and heart, and difficult questions cannot be addressed honestly. And ultimately, ironically, the very potent truth at the heart of Bible will go untapped by those most eager to get their hands on it.