The Hubristic Folly of Apologetics

Paul sharing the gospel at Mars Hill.

by John Ellis

(note: Early this morning, before beginning work on the final edit of this article, I opened The Gospel Coalition’s website and then clicked on and read “Not Your Typical Apologetics Book”. The article is an interview of Gavin Ortlund by Matt Smethurst about Ortlund’s new book Why God Makes Sense in a World That Doesn’t: The Beauty of Christian Theism. Based off the interview, the book sounds interesting and appears to be an attempt to push back on what I’ve pejoratively termed apologetic’s hubristic folly. When asked why he wrote the book, Ortlund gave this insightful response, “First, we live in a time when many people have lost a sense of hope. There is much disintegration, disillusionment, disenchantment, and despair. Second, we live in a time of hurriedness and distraction—the greatest opponent to apologetics is usually not argumentation, but apathy. Third, we live in a time of outrage and polarization. So, criticism of religion often focuses on whether it is good more than whether it is true.”

Without backing off my description of “insightful,” Ortlund’s answer should also be obvious to Believers. But it’s not, by and large. As I argue below, I believe this is because apologetics helped create the problem (modernism) from which contemporary (postmodern, if you will[1]) society is rebelling – and rebelling in ways that often reflect the best of our humanity. We don’t need a new approach to apologetics; we need to go back to the ancient apologetic of being a witness to the Resurrection. Sadly, white evangelicalism as a set is continuing to stubbornly dig into their modernist commitments at the expense of the mission given us by our King. Ortlund’s book is part of a growing cottage industry, influenced by Charles Taylor, that rightfully desires to center our apologetic and disciple-making efforts within the context of a broader society that is struggling against the malaise of modernity. My concern with books and articles like that, though, is that I’m afraid we’re putting the cart before the horse. Before we (white evangelicals) can begin to holistically engage unbelievers with God’s Truth, we need to deconstruct our own epistemological commitments and then discard those that are in rebellion against God. This is why I wrote this article. All that being said, I’m looking forward to reading and learning from Ortlund’s new book.)

Stealing, and slightly altering, one of Anthony Collins’ witticisms, no one felt the need to doubt the existence of God until apologists felt the need to try and prove it.

In the original version of the quip, Collins, an English philosopher whose life traversed the 17th and 18th centuries, was specifically mocking the apologetic efforts of the devout Anglican and philosopher Samuel Clarke.[2] At the heart of Collins’ sharply worded observation is that modern apologetics stems from a submission by professing Christians to Enlightenment rationalism at the expense of a Biblical epistemology. Ergo, the embrace of apologetics helped usher in the epistemological rebellion that, ironically, apologists believe they are called to combat.

Before proceeding, I’d like to attempt to calm some nerves. I do believe that apologetics holds some value. However, and plagiarizing the Bard, my main objective is to bury apologetics, not to praise it; I’ll hold off to the end before spelling out what value I believe adheres to apologetics. Until then, here are few of my problems with the discipline. Actually, my “problems” can be summed up in one problem: Modern apologetics operates with the belief that humans are primarily thinking creatures.

I want to be fair, though; most Christians, even those devoted to the crassest evidentialism, believe that non-Christians have a heart problem, not a head problem. At least most Christians say they believe this. I mean, while I want to be fair, I also want to be honest, because the ways in which apologetics is taught and used often reveal the opposite. While they may say they believe the heart is the real issue, they interact with unbelievers, themselves, and the world at large as if the head is the actual problem. And their modernist commitments can be seen in the anachronistic interpretation of 1 Peter 3:15.

Writing to fellow believers, the Apostle Peter encourages them by exhorting, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” That exhortation is situated within a book written with the main objective to encourage Christians to hold fast to faith in Christ during times of suffering and persecution.

Many scholars believe that the word translated defense in 3:15 has a formal legal trial for its linguistic basis. Other scholars point out that the specific context of the time was informal persecution and not a formal, state-imposed persecution. To be sure, persecution at the state’s sword tip wasn’t out of the question, but that level of suffering was not the norm when Peter wrote his letter. If persecuted, most of the letter’s original recipients would have suffered at the hands of fellow citizens and wouldn’t have found themselves in an official legal setting. But none of that really matters.

For one thing and demonstrating why word studies are usually a bad idea for non-philologists, that’s not the way language works. For example, imagine my oldest friend Brad Johnson and I plan a basketball game of one-on-one and I text him, “Dude! I am going to take you to school!” A thousand years pass, and future anthropologists and sociologists discover our text messages back and forth about the game, including my “take you to school” text. At first, the future scholars, balancing on their hoverboards, furrow their brows as they discuss and debate the meaning of the word “school.” Previous research has helped them uncover a fairly robust understanding of the word’s 21st century context; they know, to an extent, what a school is (was). In fact, they have a parallel word for school because they have a similar institution. To be sure, it’s vastly different; the approaches, practices, and, in many substantial ways, its teleology would largely be foreign to those of us living in the 21st century (and vice-versa). But enough of the core objective would remain to make parallels intelligible.

Some of the scholars, those wired to blurt out theories quickly (and loudly), posit that with my text message to Brad I was conveying the intention to sit him down on the bleachers (future archeologists have already uncovered several 21st century era gymnasiums) and, using textbooks, explain the game of basketball to him. A scantron test will complete the lesson.

“Wait a minute,” one thoughtful scholar mutters. “As I parse through the messages back and forth, I think I see a pattern. A pattern of sustained knowledge of this thing called basketball by both people in the conversation. Because of that, it doesn’t make sense that this John Ellis person, no matter how wise and knowledgeable he obviously is based on his responses, would take the time to sit down with Brad Johnson and teach him basketball. While obviously less knowledgeable about basketball than John Ellis, this Brad person knows what it is already. I think the context of the conversation requires an assumption that John planned on furthering Brad’s knowledge of basketball via educational demonstrations during a modified game. An interactive school, if you will.”

And that initial exchange after the discovery of our text messages kicked off a decades long scholarly debate about the meaning of the phrase “take you to school.” Many PhD dissertations, or whatever the equivalent will be in a thousand years, were composed based solely on my text message. The future version of the History channel aired a ten-part miniseries debating how people were schooled in basketball in the early 21st century. It will go on to win an Emmy.

Look, that laughable hypothetical should help illuminate that discerning the linguistic contextual understanding of the word “defense” is largely irrelevant to our understanding of Peter’s objective. In fact, it’s a hindrance, because to us, reared on a mind-centered anthropocentrism, the word defense in that context (in our English translations) pushes us towards a very specific understanding that is anachronistic. Debating whether the letter’s original recipients were called before the ruling authorities in a trial or before their God-hating neighbors is beyond pointless; the debate encourages us to steer into our 21st century’s contextual application of “defense” when applied to ideas. It steers us into the belief that humans can be reduced to their mind – have to be reduced to their mind. Either reason is king, or all knowledge is only knowledge of the subject’s (our) experience of things and not the things in themselves. Or both. Probably both.[3]

Regardless of if you believe otherwise about yourself, this is most likely your epistemology (see footnote 3). It takes what Mikhail Bakhtin termed outsideness[4] to adequately deconstruct your place within your own social imaginary in ways that allow you to critique and break away when and where needed. Truth be told, most of us float blithely through questions of epistemology. If we even think about it, we assume that we have attained to an objective perspective of the world that affords us a clear picture of reality. That assumption blinds us to the real reality that we operate with an anthropocentric mind-centeredness and, hence, often shut ourselves off from true Truth. Whether we admit it or not, we are products of the Enlightenment and the subsequent post-Enlightenment epistemological revolutions.  

But what does this have to do with 1 Peter 3:15?

Quite a bit.

Our understanding of time itself is different than those who lived in the 1st century.[5] Our understanding of how language works is different. Our understanding of the locus of authority is different. Our understanding of the relationship between children and their parents is different. Likewise, our understanding of our relationship with society, including whatever powers may be, is different. So much is different that it’s actually stunning to think how ill equipped we are to flourish during that time if we were somehow transported back in time. Some of the differences are for the better; some for the worse. The point is that exegeting “make a defense” without divorcing ourselves from our 21st century mind-centeredness will inevitably lead to an anachronistic application. I mean, it has; the proof is in the pudding.

Taking into account the specific context of Peter’s original audience combined with the epistemology and anthropology of the Bible, Peter is not exhorting Believers to articulate compelling arguments for the existence of God. That would be an anachronism of anachronisms. Atheists didn’t exist back then (technically they don’t now, but I’ll get to that in a second or two). Positivism wasn’t a thing. Richard Dawkins would have been crucified (literally). This should be obvious. No doubt, it is. However, I urge you to resist extrapolating a 1st century exhortation and forcing it into a post-Enlightenment 21st century epistemology. Doing so – resisting – will help us see a much more encouraging and practical application.

Again, Peter’s main purpose for writing the letter was to encourage Believers to keep their eyes on Jesus, no matter what the Enemy hurled at them. In doing so, if the 1st century Believers remained a faithful witness to the Resurrection, non-believers would naturally be astounded, confused, and even disdainful of the willingness of Christians to suffer persecution for the sake of this obscure person called Jesus. “Why put up with the abuse?” the pagan neighbor would pejoratively ask the Christian.

“Because I’ve met Jesus,” the Christian would joyfully respond. “Let me tell you about him.”  

Prepared to give a defense for our hope, indeed. Gloriously indeed.

Now, and repeating myself, here’s where the rubber meets the road: The almost universally held belief that 1 Peter 3:15 is the foundation for contemporary apologetics is anachronistic. Peter would be appalled at the YouTube videos of apologists accosting surprised strangers with gotcha questions. Humiliating people into the Kingdom for Christ’s sake! He also would have been discouraged to hear his words used to justify the debates that drag transcendent Truth into the gutter of sophistry. Listening to people pair his words with their arguments as they try to convince their neighbor that the hieroglyphic text found at the site of Bubastis proves that Solomon’s Temple was laden with gold would’ve confused Peter. “Okay. That’s cool, I guess,” he would’ve puzzled. “But when are you going to stop wasting time on things that don’t matter and introduce this lost and hurting soul to Jesus? Jesus IS the reason for your hope. He’s the defense of your hope. Tell her about him!”

One of the great ironies of humanity’s never-ending attempt to build the Tower of Babel is that no matter how much they (we) may argue otherwise, the same bricks are always used. Even the aforementioned Richard Dawkins and his bitter buddies like Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett lug the same poorly constructed bricks our ancient ancestors kilned. The scientific method is a smokescreen. Positivism is a myth. Everyone believes in God and, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, we all believe that we can be like Him, if not topple Him off His throne. Everyone believes in God. Romans 1 says so.

Apologetics, on the other hand, has the unfortunate habit of treating everyone as if they were Auguste Comte (or Richard Dawkins). Combined, paradoxically, with treating everyone as if they were also devoted poststructuralists.

Case in point, because of my specific context within the reformed community of Believers, I hear and read frequent instructions about how to answer those who claim, “I believe in science.” Hard on the heels of that instruction is often the next “useful” apologetic instruction that tells me how to answer those who claim, “Everyone should live their truth.”

Well, which is it? Are we dealing with modernists or postmodernists? Because the given answers are often reflective of a singular (and confused) epistemology. We’re instructed to not only steer them into the worst aspects of their rebellious epistemology but, at the same time, we’re to condescend to them by beating them over the head with a competing (and still rebellious) epistemology.

Here’s the thing, I do not deny that those actively engaged in rebellion against their Creator utter contradictory platitudes, but I also understand that the majority of people who draw those epistemological (crossed) lines in the sand have zero idea what they’re actually saying, including want-to-be apologists. And therein lies the rub.

If I were a betting man, I’d bet everything I own that a sizeable percentage of people reading this (even those – especially those – who pride themselves on their apologetic skills) have no idea who Auguste Comte was. If they do know who he was, have they actually read any of his books?  Probably not, meaning that they probably don’t know what positivism is. To be fair, they’re probably aware of his 20th century reincarnation with the name of A.J. Ayer because of apologetics love of blowing down a strawman version of Ayer’s verification principle. Poststructuralism? For sure, most have heard the term. Most likely as a boogeyman phrase in a sermon or Al Mohler podcast. But do they know what it is? I’m going to guess that for most people, no, they don’t.[6] (I understand that this paragraph is likely seen as harsh and condescending. I don’t know how else to say it, though. Look, harsh or not, most people who love apologetics don’t know what they’re talking about.)

So, why do we expect our unbelieving friends and family to be able to philosophically articulate their unbelief? To be able to interact with highly complex theories, especially on the fly? Frankly, most of our friends, family members, and strangers we sit next to on long flights have less than zero desire to have a discussion about moral philosophy or the nature of truth or evolution or anything that would fit comfortably on the syllabus of a college philosophy class. Furthermore, one of the blind spots of apologetics is that it tends to give lovers of apologetics a false sense of their own understanding of highly complex subject matters. I promise you that if you meet an actual atheist and attempt to argue moral philosophy with him or her, that atheist will likely make you look silly. For example, the philosophy of ethics is incredibly vast and contains deep, nuanced arguments, many of which I haven’t interacted with enough to credibly discuss, much less argue about. The platitudes given in your favorite apologetics book about philosophy of ethics (morality) will likely crash and burn when debating someone who knows what they’re talking about.

However, even if you are highly conversant in philosophy or evolution, it’s vital to remember that unbelief is not a rebellion of the mind; it’s a rebellion of the heart and only Jesus can change the heart. When someone says, “I believe that everyone should live their own truth,” the gospel response isn’t to query them about what they mean by truth with the goal of pointing out the contradiction of their statement. Doing so will likely either bore them or alienate them to the point where they’re probably not even listening to you whenever you finally do (if you do) get around to introducing them to Jesus. So, in that moment, a (much) better gospel response is, “I don’t know about you, but when I try to live my truth, I end up hurting people. If I’m being honest, I’m selfish and my truth often uses people for my own benefit in ways that hurt them. Thankfully, I’ve met someone who is Truth. I no longer have the burden of living my truth; I have the joy of learning and living His Truth. Let me tell you about Him.”

The opposite response, the response found in apologetics book and on apologetics websites, runs the high risk of rendering you as a condescending jerk, or a condescending bore. Or both. For the vast majority of people, when they say something like “I just try to live my truth,” they have no idea what they’re saying. They’re simply expressing a platitude that offers them the least resistance to their rebellion. Their heart needs to be changed, not their mind. So, in those moments, why engage directly with the falsity of their mind, continuing to steer them into the rebellion of epistemic autonomy, and not with a holistic and loving response to their hurting heart?

That’s a rhetorical question.

Likewise, debates about “trusting science” are a red herring that produces an eternal stench. Nobody not named Richard Dawkins “trusts science” in the platitude’s dogmatic completeness. Almost every person you encounter (if not every person) is not a materialist/positivist. Almost everyone on this planet believes in the supernatural. Whenever people say, “I trust science,” they are either likely referring to something specific or merely spouting a platitude to justify their rejection of God. If the former, there’s a good chance that they are correct; there are times when we should trust science, and praise God when doing so. I mean, I trusted science when the orthopedic pediatrician was setting my son’s broken bone in his arm. If the latter, it’s a platitude that most people haven’t given much thought to. Even if they are a college student “deconstructing” their faith, their understanding of it is probably surface level; more importantly, it’s only a symptom of the actual problem – which is their heart.

Here’s another thing to think about, and somewhat repeating myself, but this is important: If you do meet an actual positivist, he or she will eat your lunch and then make you give them your next day’s breakfast if you attempt to debate them. I don’t care if you’ve memorized John Frame’s book or have categorized in your brain every piece of evidence available for the veracity of the Christian worldview. As Mark Twain said, a lie can travel hallway around the globe before the truth has even laced up its boots. Not to mention that I doubt most of us understand the many disciplines in science (and philosophy) well enough to justify thinking we can win a debate.

Circling back to I Peter 3:15, I believe the truest and most helpful application is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. If someone asks me to “defend” my hope, I’m going to say, “Well, I not only realized that I was broken but I also realized that I can’t fix myself. Let me tell you about the One who fixes broken things.”

That’s it. That’s the heart of my apologetics.

Like Naaman scornfully standing on the banks of the Jordan River, though, many find my apologetic application of I Peter 3:15 too simplistic, betraying a desire to see their mind reign supreme. Pride is a sin of the heart.

Before moving into the value of apologetics, I want to address a specific type of person – the individual who has read Charles Taylor.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a bigger Charles Taylor fanboy than me. But there are dangers in reading Taylor. The danger pertinent to this article is the tendency to think that Taylor has provided you a diagnosis of the problem of others. No. That’s incorrect. Charles Taylor’s insights into the secular age expose how all of us are secular. Viewing A Secular Age as an apologetic strategy for witnessing to those straining under the burden of the imminent domain’s cross-pressure is akin to the children’s taunt that you may have one finger pointed at me but there are three other fingers pointed back at you. The Bible gives us our apologetic strategy. For its part, A Secular Age illumines how much even followers of Jesus have been perverted and are sinfully controlled by the rebellion of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment. Don’t read Charles Taylor as about them. Read Charles Taylor as about you.

After all that, though, after everything I’ve written above, what value do I find in apologetics?

Well, my answer is two-fold. One, modern apologetics does help counter the mind-centered attacks that Christians face from enemies of the Cross. I didn’t ask for my kids to go to college (presumably go to college one day) within a social imaginary that renders the belief in God as merely a lesser option among other more attractive anthropocentric options. I wish that they weren’t going to be asked to bow before the mind-centered altar of questioning the veracity of Scripture. But my wishes are not relevant. They will be pressured to bow. This is the context the Holy Spirit has placed them in. And so, I try to talk about the veracity of the Bible with them now in ways that reveal the sin in their own heart while holding out the hope found in Jesus. Apologetics, when done rightly and with a gospel-centered priority, can be a useful tool in encouraging Believers struggling under the onslaught of the Devil’s attractive lies.

My second reason is like my first. There are times when unbelievers are genuinely perplexed by things like the problem of evil or the strangeness of the Resurrection and I believe that it is right and good to be able to winsomely and humbly help them work through those questions in ways that lead back to Jesus.

Now, and this is the point, those discussions should be after introducing them to the healing grace of Jesus, not as some sort of synergistic way to “prepare the soil” for the planting of the seed. That’s backwards. The Holy Spirit has promised to work through the Word. The defense of our hope is Jesus. Everything else should submit to that Truth. Believing that we need to answer someone’s questions about the Resurrection before sharing the gospel is, without question, a textbook example of assuming that the problem is the head and not the heart. It also fails to recognize that those very questions are part of the problem: the problem of bowing before an epistemological idol. The opposite of an error is another error.

Share the gospel, and then tell them about the hieroglyphic text found at Bubastis and the pharaoh Sheshonq if they ask (they won’t ask, I promise). But do so in a way that quickly leads back to Jesus. Jesus is what they (we all) need; not a scholarly understanding of how Egyptology “proves” the Bible. And that applies to each and every aspect of apologetics. Not to mention, the Bible doesn’t need proving. God doesn’t need proving. Jesus doesn’t need proving.

Sadly, apologetics as it is most often rendered amounts to little more than Christians envying the Tower of Babel. That’s its hubristic folly.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] I’m not using “postmodern” in its academic sense but with its sociological colloquialism sense. For sure, since society is downstream of the academy, the postmodern philosophers have affected our current social imaginary. In some ways that’s good; in some ways that’s bad. It’s good in that it topples the idol(s) of modernism. It’s bad in that it seeks to erect an idol of its own making.

[2] Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, The Rise of Modern Paganism (New York: Norton, 1966), 326.

[3] Kant is the one who created the bifurcation of “he’s a rationalist” or “he’s an empiricist.” While rarely strictly true of any philosopher, including Descartes, that bifurcation has helped create confusion in philosophy students and those who read overwrought, too wordy, and unnecessarily technical blog posts (like the one you’re reading). However, from the perspective of modern Epistemology, it has proven useful in that it helped move the conversation forward; combining empiricism and rationalism, Kant developed what he termed transcendental idealism. Unfortunately, I believe, the conversation should’ve been moved backwards not forward. Thanks to Kant’s labors, we (all of us) are imprisoned by a contra-Biblical epistemology that places our mind on the throne of the kingdom of knowledge.

[4] Mikhail Bakhtin, “Response to a Question from the Novy Mir Editorial Staff,’ in Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), 7.

[5] If you’re interested, Charles Taylor explains this better than I can – read A Secular Age.

[6] It’s not necessarily a character flaw if you aren’t conversant in philosophy. I’m not conversant in mathematics. I wish I were. But I don’t think it’s a character flaw. My point is that my intention isn’t to be dismissive or shame anyone for not knowing who Auguste Comte was. My point, as stated in the body of this article is twofold: 1. Most of our friends and family members who aren’t Christians don’t want to have apologetic discussions in the ways in which apologetics is taught. 2. Apologetics tends to give people a false sense of their own understanding of complex theories and philosophies.

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