What is the Proper Way to Do Apologetics?

We are living in what can be considered the golden age of Christian apologetics. There has been more information published defending Christianity in the last twenty five years than in most of the previous twenty centuries. During that time Christian apologists have made a great impact on many people’s lives.

I maintain, however, that many of us in the apologetics community are “doing it wrong.” To be more effective, we must do apologetics more wisely.

When I started this blog, the first time I mentioned the Kalam Cosmological demonstration for the existence of God, the first response I received was very telling. The Kalam demonstration basically says that everything with a beginning has a cause, the universe has a beginning, therefore the universe has a cause. One commenter said that 1) causality is a subjective perception, 2) causality may not be a universal truth , 3) logic might not apply to everything, 4) the physical matter in the universe is actually a projection of meaning. The commenter summed up by saying this:

All beginnings and endings, particles and measurements, feelings and experiences are part of the show but the show itself has no cause and all cause. It’s completely random and it’s perfect fate. It’s everything: it’s the universe.

Now, most of us in the apologetics community can immediately see the flaws in such an explanation, which is more contradiction than sense. Our typical reaction would be to do what I did, which was more explanation of the reasonableness of the Kalam. But here’s the rub: I had already done that. The reader did not need more explanation of the points, for I had made them already in the first post, which was ignored and filtered through a lens of a worldview. I should not expect to make much progress via a computer discussion using logic, for they had already denied that logic applies to reality. Indeed, they had already denied the common explanation of reality itself.

In the book A Little Primer on Humble Apologetics by James W. Sire, the author makes the following point:

Apologetic arguments take place in a variety of contexts. One of the reasons they often do not work–that is, do not persuade–is that they are cast in ways that are inappropriate to the situation. There’s a great difference between an apologist’s presentation of a case for the Christian faith to a large audience and that same apologist’s chat with a small group around a table at Starbucks or one-on-one dialogue with a friend. The tone and temper of the atmosphere, its openness or hostility, its formality or informality, its time constraints or lack thereof are all significant. (p.55)

I think Sire is right, and this is a point that is largely missed in apologetic circles. I attribute the key problems of Christian apologists’ effectiveness to the following:

  • Applying debate principles to personal encounters.
  • Becoming increasingly shaped by electronic, distant communication that is impersonal
  • Not communicating respect to those with whom we are communicating

We apologists tend to take the methods used by men such as William Lane Craig in his on-stage debates and use them with personal encounters with people. We tend to use pure logic in a harsh way to prove other people wrong because that is what we have been shaped to do by the computer medium and studying arguments. Using these techniques in one-on-one conversations are mistakes, and they reduce our effectiveness.

I view this blog as more educational than evangelistic or persuasive because it is via an online web page. Few people take things they read online to heart. Therefore discussions are shut down if they get argumentative or repetitive.

People are much more receptive when a live person is sitting in front of them, someone to whom they have come to know and have some respect. We simply cannot do apologetics the same in an online educational format, a public debate, and in one-on-one encounters. These are all different situations that require different approaches.

Many apologists think that the arguments themselves are persuasive. Perhaps they are to some, but more effective is the way the arguments are communicated. As Sire points out in his book, we must show our audience that we respect them or they will not listen to our arguments.  Only by shaping our communication to the situation and the audience will we be effective in doing apologetics.




About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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8 Responses to What is the Proper Way to Do Apologetics?

  1. c emerson talmage says:

    Isn’t the Christian faith, or any faith, part of a worldview? Isn’t the commitment to logic (or physics, for that matter) as applying to the known universe part of a worldview? Isn’t it a matter of fact (or at least an extremely high probability) that all humans formulate an individualistic worldview based on the values, concepts and internal insights that each brain posesses?

    If so, then isn’t accepting any set of starting assumptions, axioms, organizing principles and apprehensions, or revising same, a function of that individual’s brain’s ability to perceive and ‘endorse’ those assumptions, axioms, organizing principles and apprehensions?

    • humblesmith says:

      It is not the case that a worldview determines whether or not Christianity or logic is true. It is the opposite: reason determines whether or not someone holds a worldview to be true. Christianity is also true independent of whether anyone’s worldview allows for it. If you step out in front of a bus, it will flatten you whether or not you hold that physics applies to the universe.

      Now it is the case that our ability to understand something impacts whether or not I believe it to be true. If I am unable to understand geometry then I might not agree with it, but my mind does not impact the truths of geometry.

      Likewise Jesus’ claims of truth are true whether it not someone understands them or holds them to be true. Not knowing them is not an excuse for what happens to us in the afterlife.

  2. c emerson talmage says:

    Thanks for the response. “Likewise Jesus’ claims of truth are true whether [or] not someone understands them or holds them to be true.”

    I agree with that sentence. My position is that formal logic cannot prove the existence of God. And even I granted that logic could prove the existence of an intelligence outside of the physical world, the attributes of such an intelligence would not necessarily be those of any one of the many versions of such an intelligence presented to us in sacred literatures or in any theologies.

    Truth certainly is what it is. But so is faith. While logic and human judgement may inform us as to what is not *likely to be* valid theology, logic alone cannot eliminate uncertainty. Somewhere in the stream of logical analysis as applied to our sensible perceptions and our perhaps intrinsic apprehensions, are the foundational principles or axioms that can neither be proved by further analysis nor discovered (probably) by further empirical research.

    Somewhere one must just accept (or ‘know’ in a non-scientific sense) these foundational principles.

    And that is the problem, in my opinion, with the theist-atheist debate. Both sides are founded on certain scientific unknowables; and each side has a different position on the subject of non-scientific ‘knowledge’. And even as to what constitutes a valid logical conclusion, the sides are at an impasse … as to the possibility or impossibility of an infinite regression of causes, for example, or as to the attributes of God even if a portion of humanity accepts logic as an adequate source for establishing the existence of God.

    This is what I mean by world-views at variance. I agree that a ‘world view’ will not ‘justify’ the truth of Christianity, but Christianity (and its many forms) is nonetheless just another worldview among very many. Perhaps it is the ‘best’ one but that is not a successful route for debate, given the lack of acertainable criteria for what is meant by ‘best’.

    For me, this leaves Christians, including Thomists, but not perhaps all Aristotelians, at a point where some acquisition of faith is needed without reliance on logic argument.

    If that is right, then presenting faith-based propositions to non-believers becomes necessary, and perhaps must take some priority over logic-based propositions.

    I apply thus same argument to atheists. In other words, theism and atheism, in my opinion, are at a certain point both faith-based, or judgement-based.

    Thanks again for taking the time to write your blog, and for your responses.

    • c emerson talmage says:

      Quick clarification: When I said, “I agree with that sentence” about the Jesus’ claims of truth, I meant that the truth of his claims are either true or not regardless of anyone’s beliefs or arguments about them. I did not mean to imply anything about my own beliefs about those claims. It is possible, for example, that Jesus was not an historical figure. It is also possible that, if he is historical, that his actual claims are not fully known, or have been modified by others before being codified. I personally look at the philosophical value of the claims attributed to him, not at any evaluation of their literary accuracy. So be it.

    • humblesmith says:

      Your comments cover quite a bit of ground. Since this post is about something different, I would suggest you read many of the other posts on this blog which deal with many of the issues you mention more specifically.

  3. Reblogged this on A nobody who has Jesus and commented:
    Great read about apologetics. We should indeed use wisdom as we use apologetics for our approaches are dependent on the circumstances that we’re in.

  4. Great post man! 🙂 I also learned this in the apologetics class that I attended. I’m still finding a hard time applying it but by God’s grace – He’ll help me do it. God bless you!

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