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.