The need for apologetics is clear.
Racial and political tensions in the United States (2020-2021) has led to the rise of urban apologetics – apologetics that speaks to the practical issues that face the society, especially inner-city neighborhoods. The reason for this move is that classical apologetics speaks to intellectual arguments that may not be the bread and butter for those trying to eke out a living, those struggling with racism and those lured by liberation movements in their neighborhoods, just to name a few issues. In Nairobi, we are still called to respond to the prosperity “entrepreneurs”, cultural traditionists, new age enthusiasts as well as speaking to nominal Christianity. Of late, there has been interest in making the case for Christianity as an African faith. This is certainly an important pursuit for the African apologist.
The work for the African apologist is cut out for her. What tools does she have in her hands to enable her to do her work well? This post explores 3 essentials for the apologist, borrowing from Paul’s engagement with the people of his time – the Thessalonians and Athenians (Acts 17)
1. Centrality of Christ and the Scriptures
Apologists see no clash between faith and reason. In fact, reason is their best friend. That is after all their “pet-name” – apologist which comes from apologia which means “making a defense” i.e. reasoning persuasively. With the vast developments in science and philosophy, the temptation is to conjure up the latest arguments in apologetic engagement. Whereas there is a place for that, the picture that we have in the New Testament is that the disciples “reasoned from the Scriptures” (Acts 8:35, 17:2). This makes the case that Scripture is the foundation of apologetics. Without Scriptures, we have nothing to say, nothing to defend and no authority in our speaking. The only authority the Christian has is that of Christ and his Word. Paul’s audience in the synagogue in Thessalonica is Jewish, meaning they have some acquaintance with Jesus Christ. However, his reasoning has to do with both “explaining” and “proving” his uniqueness (Acts 17:3) – that he lived a perfect life in the place of imperfect people, suffered the death deserved for sinners, rose again, thereby ensuring them of the benefits of a reconciled world and a restored relationship with God and others for all eternity. Even with the stoic and epicurean philosophers in Athens, Paul still talks about the resurrection (Acts 17:18 See also 1 Cor 15:14, 17). Without the revelation of God in the Scriptures and the testimony of Jesus Christ, the apologist’s tools are blunt at best.
2. Compassion for People
Many Christians have associated apologetics with unprofitable debates. Certainly, a quick look at social media engagements offers some evidence for this common sentiment. Nonetheless, all Christians are called to give a reason for the hope they have in Christ.
Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.Jude 3
Apologetics is clearly a command in Scripture. However, the Scriptures are clear on the heart posture that goes hand in hand with our persuasion – Peter says “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15). Perhaps there is nowhere that this is best illustrated than Paul’s reaction in Athens:
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.Acts 17:16
Paul’s heart is “stirred” and “aroused” by the idol worship which was characteristic of Greco-Roman culture and religion. Paul is grieved that the Athenians have exchanged the worship of the immortal God for man-made idols. It is compassion for the Athenians that drives him to make a defense for the God revealed in Christ.
3. Clear presentation from the Known to the Unknown
One of the strategies that has been presented in evangelistic and apologetic engagement is the strategy of beginning with common ground. When engaging with those who have a different worldview to us, it is always in order to begin with what is common. Among these, Paul lists:
- shared ancestry – “Being then God’s offspring, we ought to . . .” (Acts 17:29)
- shared religious desire – “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious” (Acts 17:22)
- shared sayings of the day – he quotes a known Greek poet of the day “in him we live and move and have our being” (Epimenides of Crete)
Paul moves from what they know to the unknown. Clearly, the Athenians have a sensus divinitatis, a sense of the divine as theologians have put it. But their sense is at best blind. Their altar speaks of this blindness: “To an Unknown God”. Paul moves from this knowledge and moves towards a characteristically biblical worldview. Three elements are clear:
- God is the creator of the universe – with his character as:
- creator – the God who made the world and everything in it v. 24, 26
- sovereign – Lord of heaven and earth v. 24
- spiritual – does not live in human temples v. 24b
- self-existing – nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything v. 25
- immanent – he is actually not far away from each one of us v. 27
- Man is accountable to God – he made from one man [Adam] every nation . . . that they should seek God and perhaps feel their way toward him v. 27
- The call to faith and repentance – the times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man [Jesus Christ] whom he has appointed v. 30-31
These three points are distinct to the Christian worldview and need always to be at the forefront of any engagement with someone who does not believe in the Messiah. Whether we are engaging with postmodern skeptics, religious fanatics, traditionalists – beneath these labels lie the reality that Christ and his Scriptures are central, compassion is a necessary posture and clear presentation of the biblical worldview is indispensable. These are the three essential tools for the budding and growing apologist.