The popular Catholic theologian Scott Hahn has correctly noted that some people, “practice apologetics as a full-contact sport or as take-no-prisoners warfare. For such apologists, the goal is to win the argument, even if that means utterly humiliating their ‘enemies.” For many Christians, apologetics has become a form of mental jousting in which the primary goal is to deliver crushing blows to the pathetic beliefs of their enemies. This unfortunate approach is what I like to call heartless apologetics and its practitioners have bought into several lies which I feel compelled to point out:
- Heartless apologists mistakenly believe they can win people to Christ through intellectually “backhanding” non-believers.
The goal of apologetics is not to flaunt your intellectual superiority or to demean others who hold false beliefs. If you think or act as if you are superior to other human beings simply because you have a quick wit and know several slick arguments for the existence of God, then you are a fool. If you think you are successfully engaging a persons heart after intellectually slapping them in the face, then you are an incredibly ineffective fool.
Effective apologetics begins with love; a genuine love, in your heart, for other people. It is founded upon a deep and sincere hurt for those who are in bondage to sin and have been captivated and led astray by false worldly wisdom. It flows out of a loving desire to help those who are drowning in a sea of doubt. The effective apologist will always treat his “opponent” with respect and dignity and genuinely attempt to understand who they are and why they believe the things they do. This can only take place through meaningful conversations and with a certain amount of humility.
The heartless apologist tends to emphasis St. Peter’s call to, “make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you,” while ignoring his admonition to engage in such apologetics with, “gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15). He relies, primarily, upon his own knowledge and intellect–using these tools as a weapon to take his opponent down. When all is said and done, there is a certain amount of pleasure and satisfaction that he enjoys after humiliating his sparing partner. There is a certain amount of pride that he takes in belittling the beliefs of his enemy; and, whether he knows it or not, this pride manifests itself in every encounter he has with non-believers.
The scriptures teach us that all men are made in the image of God (this includes atheists and charlatans) and are, therefore, valuable and lovable. It teaches us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves; and even to love our enemies. Hence, we should not gloat over our enemies or take pleasure in defeating them. As the scriptures say, “do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles, lest the Lord see it, and be displeased” (Proverbs 24:17-18). In everything we do we should do it out of love–love for God and love for those made in His image. Hence, the effective apologist will not make it his aim to beat down his enemy; rather, he will seek to build him up by using his intellectually abilities to point him to the truth which can set him free.
2. Heartless apologists mistakenly believe their great intellect or education will make the Word of the cross “respectable.”
The heartless apologist puts all of his trust in his intellectual abilities and often puts a lot of stock in his education. He works hard to hone his abilities through intensive study and sincerely believes that his extensive knowledge coupled with the acquisition of a Ph.D will earn him the utmost respect among non-believers. The underlying assumption is that attaining these worldly measurements of wisdom will somehow make the gospel respectable among the cultured elite of his day. In short, his aim is to make the message of the cross less “foolish” through his great learning and scholarly accomplishments.
Again, this approach misses the whole point of apologetics while ignoring the Bible’s clear teaching on the matter. The primary goal of apologetics is to direct lost sheep to Jesus and to help tear down the barriers which hinder the lost from putting their faith in God. Secondarily, apologetics is meant to edify believers by providing rational answers to common, and uncommon, questions, concerns, and challenges to the faith. The goal of apologetics is not to impress people with your great learning or to somehow make Christianity respectable in a worldly sense.
The Word of the cross will never be respectable among those who do not believe no matter how many Ph.D’s you have behind your name. St. Paul states clearly that, “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing . . . for Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (I Cor. 1:18-23). You may be a genius and you may have attained the highest education in the land but you will still be laughed at and treated like an idiot when you proclaim Christ crucified (no matter how brilliantly you proclaim it).
The word of the cross will always seem foolish to those who do not believe no matter who is proclaiming it and this is okay; because it is not our goal as apologists to make the word of the cross “respectable.” Our goal is to point people to the word of the cross.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating some form of anti-intellectualism. I strongly believe that we are to love the Lord through cultivating our mind. It is extremely important for Christians to be knowledgeable of science and philosophy and to grow in the knowledge of their faith. It is imperative that Christians enter the world of academia and earn Ph.D’s. I myself hope to earn a Ph.D in the future. I’m not disparaging these important pursuits; I’m arguing that we should not put all of our trust in them. I’m simply pointing out that no amount of intellectualism will make the gospel passe among non-believers and that the goal of apologetics is not to impress the world with our knowledge.
When all is said and done, we must view apologetics as a crucial part of fulfilling Christ’s command to go and make disciples of all nations and we must engage in apologetics with the heart of Christ–as an act of love. We defend the faith in order to lead the lost to Christ and to strengthen the faith of struggling believers–not to show off.