Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Giving Reason For The Hope II

The Possibility And Necessity of Apologetics In Scripture

Derived from the Greek word apologia, which meant “defense”, the apologetic task involved refuting objections leveled against the Christian faith (defensive apologetics) and/or providing a positive case for its acceptance (offensive apologetics).

As such, it could play a potentially crucial role in both strengthening the faith of believers and helping to remove obstacles that hinder a seeker from coming to faith in the task of evangelism.

Do we not find numerous biblical instances of reasoned arguments employed in the ministry of Jesus Himself? In His didactic dialogues with Pharisees, Sadducees and disciples, Jesus rationally answered objections, opened up hidden assumptions with well-placed questions and appealed to miraculous signs as evidence for His claims .

During Paul’s missionary journeys, we frequently find him in synagogues persuading and debating Jewish religious leaders and pagan philosophers at Mars Hill on the validity of the gospel (Acts 14:15-17, 17:2-4, 16-31, 18:4, 19:8-9) . Since Luke took care to explicitly record that some who heard his presentation indeed chose to believe (Acts 17:34), the narrative does not function as an illustration of the bankruptcy of persuasion as taught by Watchman Nee. Even some of these converts’ names (Dionysius and Damaris) were mentioned, indicating that these men from Athens eventually made an impact on church life in later years.

Not only that, we also have clear biblical injunction in 1 Peter 3:15-16 for a persecuted church to be prepared to give a credible answer (apologia) to everyone who asked for the reason why they believed. It is not just a nice suggestion or a duty for an elite group of intellectuals only. Biblical apologetics thrive or wither in the whole church as we carry out the missionary task. Interestingly, the same passage also admonished us to be gentle and respectful, keeping a clear conscience and displaying Christ-like behavior before hostile critics. How we need to vigilantly shun the besetting sins of tactless method, intellectual pride and lack of grace evident in many would-be apologists! In 2 Corinthians 10:4-6, the church is urged to take apart arguments that set itself up against the knowledge of Christ, making every thought captive in obedience to Him. Spiritual warfare is therefore not primarily about doing prayer walks around the neighborhood. Especially in a pluralistic context like Malaysia, the church needs more informed, winsome and courageous ambassadors who could engage contemporary challenges in a biblically faithful and culturally relevant manner.

However, there are also some common objections which have been advanced against the use of apologetics in favor of a simple proclamation of the gospel. For example, we are reminded of Paul’s warning “that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy” (Colossians 2:8) and “the gospel is the foolishness of God… I come not with persuasive words of wisdom” (1 Corinthian 1-2). We would do well to remember that ultimately the Holy Spirit is able and responsible to convict and renew a sinner’s heart to repentance and trust in Christ, not the cogency of our arguments. However, a more careful reading of the texts mentioned suggests that Paul was actually warning us against false philosophy, not philosophy per se. In order to beware of false philosophy, we need to be aware of them first!

As we have seen earlier, Paul himself used reasoning in gospel proclamation and his condemnation was directed against prideful intellectualism, not against reason itself (1 Corinthians 8:1). The crucifixion is offensive to human pride for the Jews sought miraculous signs whereas the Greek sophists peddle ‘wisdom’ by improving their speaking skills to persuade people with empty rhetoric, not substance. Simply put, the antidote for arrogance is humility, not ignorance (1 Corinthians 14:20). When Jesus commended the faith of a child (Matthew 18:2-4), He was referring to a child’s dependent humility, not the mental ability of toddlers, as a condition to enter the Kingdom. It is not uncommon to find proud ignoramus who are defensive and unwilling to learn from others too. Therefore, intellectual witness should not be viewed as a competitor or substitute of the Spirit’s work of illumination, but a means by which He could open spiritual eyes to see the truth. Just as the ministry of transportation is to ferry people to a physical place where they can listen to the gospel, the apologetic ministry seeks to bring them to a “cultural and intellectual space” where the communication of the gospel makes plausible sense in the worldview of the hearers.

While it is obvious that God does not need our defense, His sheep nonetheless needs protection from adverse spiritual consequences of false teachings. C. S. Lewis correctly reflects: “To be ignorant and simple now — not to be able to meet the enemies [of Christ] on their own ground — would be to throw down our weapons and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered." Therefore, Scripture seems to mandate a duty for the church to earnestly contend for the faith (Jude 3). While faith is beyond reason, it also does not require a fideistic, intellectual suicide. Biblically understood, faith involves the entire person - knowledge, mental assent as well as a personal commitment.

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