Apologetics as Christian Devotion

anselmTypically, when one reflects on the discipline of apologetics, a mere academic pursuit is in mind. Though not always the case, in my personal encounter with individuals who reason this way, a classic example would entail something like, “Apologetics is nothing more than intellectual arguments that will win no one for Christ.” Or perhaps, “I don’t want anything to do with apologetics because all anyone needs is the Bible.” Though these individuals mean well, I would argue that these sort of declarations stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of apologetics. In what follows, I want to make an attempt to defend the discipline of apologetics by elaborating on the devotional aspect of the practice.

While I in no way deny the academic value of apologetic engagement, as Christians, and as pastors in particular, we must realize that there is an extreme devotional characteristic that must not be ignored. In fact, if as pastors we promote apologetics as a devotional quest, it may be a positive step forward in strengthening our congregations to live healthy Christian lives in an unbelieving world. However, in order to investigate the devotional nature of apologetics, some preliminary examination is necessary.

Primarily, we must construct a helpful definition of apologetics. Bernard Ramm, in his Varieties of Christian Apologetics, provides useful insight into the historical origin of the concept. He writes:

The historical origin of apologetics is to be found in the legal procedures in ancient Athens. The plaintiff brought his accusation before the court. The accused had the right of making a reply (apologia) to the accusation. The reply was an effort to show the falsity of the accusation; hence the accused attempted to “speak off” the charge (11).

Thus, the traditional understanding of apologetics can be viewed as a formal defense—apologia—of one’s position as in a court of law. However, and as with most etymological studies, knowing what words mean in their original setting may not be normative for future usage. Therefore, let’s consider a couple of definitions as provided by modern experts in the field. William Lane Craig, perhaps Christianity’s foremost apologist today, explains the discipline of apologetics in this way,

Apologetics is that branch of Christian theology which seeks to provide a rational justification for the truth claims of the Christian faith. Apologetics is primarily a theoretical discipline, though it has a practical application (Reasonable Faith, 15).

While Craig is certainly correct in what he affirms, more is needed. Additionally, Christian apologetics should seek to demonstrate that Scripture, as God’s authoritative Word, provides the firm foundation needed for the rational justification of the Christian faith. After all, God has revealed Himself to His creation and has given His people His Word to instruct them in every area of life (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Therefore, as John Frame, my mentor from afar, rightfully demonstrates, “Apologetics may be defined as the application of Scripture to unbelief” (Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 87). Frame’s simple, yet profound analysis of apologetics is helpful in many ways.

To say that the apologist’s task is to apply God’s Word to unbelief is to display a vast range of possibilities in doing so. Examples include not only combating unbelief in the academic realm, but also addressing personal and congregational struggles with unbelief. In referencing unbelief in the latter categories, apologetics has the ability of reinforcing one’s faith on a devotional level.  Thus, Frame’s perspective on apologetics is a helpful as we are able to apply it to both the academic and personal arenas of life. However, the question remains as to how one might specifically engage apologetics as a devotional pursuit. Though there are undoubtedly numerous possibilities, consider the following three:

1 . Loving God with our minds– To engage in the discipline of apologetics is to love the Lord with all our minds (Matthew 22:37). This implies an understanding that our minds have been both created and renewed by the Word of God (Genesis 1:26-27; Romans 12:1-2). Therefore, when dealing with unbelief the proper procedure is to think God’s thoughts after Him as a countermeasure. However, the only way of knowing God’s thoughts is to consider the witness of Scripture on the matter as it is His authoritative Word. In doing so, we display our allegiance—our love—to God by denying our autonomous attempts at dealing with unbelief. Thus, we comes to know God more personally.

2. Dealing with personal unbelief– When dealing with personal doubt in our lives, we must seek to apply the Word of God to that particular situation. A great example would include one who struggles with the question of God’s goodness in light of evil and suffering. As daunting a task as the search for this answer can be, often times individuals are comforted by the reminder from Scripture that God is in control. Though we may not ever know the “why” of suffering, we have assurance of a promised inheritance bought by the blood of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:3-5). Though the problem of evil and suffering is traumatic, many come out knowing and loving God more because of it. Scripture affirms that it is in the midst of suffering that God’s goodness shines so brightly (Habakkuk as an example).

3. Dealing with congregational unbelief– There is a sense in which apologetics is also a perspective on preaching. Every time the pastor engages the congregation with a sermon, he is in a sense, addressing unbelief. Between those who have not come to salvation in Christ and Christians who may be struggling in their personal lives, the preacher is applying Scripture to unbelief. There is a very real sense in which the pastor is making an apologetic appeal through his sermon. Thus, when we preach to our people, we must be enthusiastic about the power of God’s Word to change lives for His own glory by dealing with doubt in their lives.

In conclusion, I would like to provide a brief example from church history displaying how the apologetic task is devotional. Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in his work Proslogion the following words,

Teach me to seek You, and reveal Yourself to me as I seek, because I can neither seek You if You do not teach me how, nor find You unless You reveal Yourself. Let me seek You in desiring You; let me desire You in seeking You; let me find You in loving You; let me love You in finding You…For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also, that unless I believe, I shall not understand. (Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, 87)

Anselm penned this paragraph within the framework of a prayer seeking to know God in a more profound way. Though Anselm did not necessarily intend what others would do with his prayer in the centuries to come, his Proslogion would come to be the basis for what is known as the Ontological Argument for God’s existence. This particular argument has been both loved and hated by numerous intellectuals throughout the history of Western thought and is still currently discussed among philosophers and theologians. Though primarily discussed in the academic climate of today, Anselm’s work is a deeply devotional and edifying to read.  Therefore, as Christians, we should not look down upon apologetics as merely an academic task. In doing so, we would be missing out on an extremely important and devotional perspective of the Christian faith.

Dylan Rowland is an elder at Grace Community Church in Waverly, OH. He also serves as President of the Southern Ohio Pastors Coalition. He is a graduate of Shawnee State University (B.A.) and is a current student at Reformed Theological Seminary (M.A.).

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