Modern Apologetics: For Outreach or for Christian Edification?

When I first came to faith in Jesus Christ, one of the first books I read was C.S. Lewis’ classic book, Mere Christianity. Lewis became an instant hero. His clear, logically reasoned defense of the Christian faith helped ground me, helped me be confident that the leap of faith that I had just plunged into was not just dumb belief, but was also something that made sense. I was so grateful to Lewis.

In my first church experience, we talked a lot about the reasoned proofs for the faith. We quoted Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict; we bought books by Norman Geisler.

When I went to seminary, there was a department dedicated to the “Philosophy of Religion.” I had friends who majored in that, hoping to be the next Ravi Zacharias. Apologetics was a required course for my Master of Divinity, and I remember furiously taking notes in that class so that I could later equip people to defend their faith.

My first ministry was as a pastor for adult ministries in a church of about 600 people. I initiated a ministry to the college students in our church, recruiting some young men and women to lead worship and I preached a series called, “Prepared to Answer,” with messages that defended that God exists, why the Bible is inerrant, that Jesus was resurrected, that Darwinism is wrong, and how evil and a good God can be explained. In doing this series, I was reading deeply the heady writings of William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland. My thinking was that Christian college students needed to be “Prepared to Answer” since it is especially on secular college campuses that Christians had better be ready to make a defense for what they believe.

One of the worst feelings to have is to feel like an idiot. We fear that people will scoff at us who believe in Jesus Christ as if we have no brains. We want to prove them wrong. We want to know what we believe and why we believe it, as Paul Little instructs in his books. We want to show people, especially those who are in our educational institutions, that we can reason and debate with the best. Our faith is not idiotic. It is a “Reasonable Faith,” as William Lane Craig’s book calls it.

And my goal, as a pastor trying to equip Christians to do evangelism well in a secular world, was to help them have confidence that, in a world that demeaned Christians as unthinking people, they could have credible ways to defend the faith against the atheists who will inevitably attack them.

The problem was, most of us rarely meet anybody that we can actually use these arguments against.

What all these defenses of the faith actually accomplished, more than anything else, was to shore up our own belief system. We became assured that what we took on faith was not “just” something that people could believe based on faith, that people could also come to the reasoned conclusion that it was true.

It was almost as if having faith was not enough. Faith needed to be reasoned, it had to be able to be defended logically, or else it was invalid.

Faith without validation by way of reason was baseless, illogical, and therefore was open to the accusation of being downright stupid.

Why did we need reasoned arguments to ground our faith? It was because we were steeped in a modern cultural context.

Myron Penner writes,

"Modernity is often labeled as the Age of Science, or as the Age of Reason, but I would like to add one more moniker: Modernity is also the Age of Apologetics. In modernity, traditional forms of authority (viz. Church and State) are rejected and human reason is re-imagined as universal and objective so that it can fill the authority vacuum. In other words, it is to Reason (as universal and objective) that one must look in modernity for the authority and legitimacy of one’s beliefs and actions (and one must do it for oneself!)...

It is little wonder, then, that Christians found it necessary to take up the arms of modern rationality and defend themselves. In short, in response to the attacks on Christian belief from modern philosophy, modern evangelical Christians developed a “scientific” apologetic, modeled after the philosophical method and rigor of modern analytic philosophy, which attempted to establish the universal rationality of Christian belief using the same “objective” and “presuppositionless” premises required by modern empirical science." (A New Kind of Conversation)

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Steve said...


I followed a very similar path. While I haven't reflected on my college experiences with apologetics, your post resonates with and sheds some light on my experience. Thanks.

Steve Fortenberry
Common Ground Church Community
North Lima, OH

joe said...

i had to smile. i grew up reading those josh mcdowell books. it was like you said. it seemed more for me than for apologetics. it was apologetics that helped me through my time of doubting god. at that time, i thought that was what i needed.

is faith, faith if we need to justify it with reason? not that our faith cant be defended with reason, but does it need to?

now my faith stands against scrutiny, even if logic doesnt fit.

ps - i never met anyone who believed in the "swoon theory". lol

Nate W said...


I find it fascinating that when we read the Scriptures we never find God trying to prove himself to man, nor do we find man attempting to come up with some reasonable explanation that unlocks the mysteries of God.

A friend of mine and I have been going to Torah study at a local synagogue here in Long Beach. It has been fascinating to participate in a conversation that is centered around questioning. For our friends there, it is almost as if they find beauty in not knowing.

I think the reason we find so much art (poetry, song, story, etc.) in the Bible is because art creates for us a reality that invites questions and is turned off to easy answers that attempt to explain the subject away.

Which reminds me of this quote I recently came across by James Baldwin that says, "The function of art is to reveal the questions which have been concealed by the answers."

I have truly begun to capture a sense of wonder, awe, and amazement as I have started embracing the questions. And the interesting thing is that in some mysterious way, it actually has been within the questions themselves that I have found peace.

Anyways, I hope things are going well in Ohio with the CCO.



Bob Robinson said...

Amen. Thanks for continuing to read and interact here!

Bob Robinson said...

You make me laugh. Can I use that line? -"I've never met anyone who believed in the "swoon theory."

Bob Robinson said...


Very nice. As I read John MacArthur's scathing critique of Rob Bell in "The Truth War," I see that MacArthur is simply unwilling to ever embrace a humble position of being a questioning person. Faith is only in what we know, and anything else is to be seen with suspicion.

joe said...

go for it bob. the line is all yours.

Jim Robertson said...

Thanks Bob.

You may find John Stackhouse of Regent interesting / affirming / encouraging. He espouses "humble apologetics". There are four interviews of him at Dick Staub's Kindlings. I am a bit foggy on detail, as it is some weeks since I listened to these, but worth listening to all 4 as he pulls it all together nicely in the later ones. They are not too long. If the podcasts work for you, he has a book by that title published by Oxford University Press" Link to the page - you will need to scroll down a little.


Jim Robertson
'True justice is the harvest reaped by peacemakers from seeds sown in the spirit of peace.' (James 3:18 NEB)

Ted M. Gossard said...

Bob, I now have no enthusiasm at all for such apologetic work, though I think that's going too far.

C.S. Lewis has done some good apologetic work along with others, which can be and has been helpful for many unbelievers.

But I think what Myron Penner says is surely true.

Jeff Greathouse said...

Thanks for the post. I was just having this conversation with a fellow minister today.

ChrisB said...

"It was almost as if having faith was not enough."

It's not. I need to know I have faith in something real. As Paul put it, if Christ was not raised, we are of all men to be most pitied.

There are lots of folks running around telling folks that Christ was not raised. "Faith" in the face of facts isn't faith -- it's stupidity. Knowing the truth is important.

Bob Robinson said...


Modern Apologetics sought to prove that Jesus was raised from the dead. But I have yet to meet anybody who became a dedicated follower of Jesus Christ because they became convinced through Reasoned Logic that Jesus was raised from the dead.

Maybe you have.

My point is this: Paul certainly said that our faith must be in a real resurrection, but it nonetheless is faith. Remember, Paul also said that in order to be saved, you need to "believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead" (Romans 10:9-10).

I wasn't there when Jesus tomb was found empty. I never saw the risen Lord. It happened loooong ago in a place faaaaar away. I cannot arrive at faith in the resurrection by Reason alone. I have to believe it in my heart. I have to trust this to be true.

Modern Apologetics may be useful in giving me some basis for believing that it is possible, but it cannot prove it with certainty. My faith is the leap from believing that something possible (Jesus was raised from the dead) certainly happened. I am saved by placing my trust in the person of Jesus who I believe was raised from the dead.

That's faith. And it's different from Logic and Reason.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bob

Your conviction that you are "saved" is enough to convince me. But whilst it illustrates the psychological power of faith, it really goes no further than that for me.

Using your criteria for faith (believing that something is possible, but not requiring certainty) leaves the door wide open for an almost limitless variety of faith positions. To include your particular faith position, wouldn't one have to bolster that definition to include believing in things to be possible that evidence tells us are impossible - e.g. virgin birth. This leaves us in a position where literally anything at all is possible using your criteria. At this point Bertrand Russell joined in the fun and proposed that there was teapot orbiting the sun, but it was too small to be seen. Can't be disproved, so it must be true.

On another thread, I asked you to summarize your rebuttal to Bertrand Russell's Flying Teapot argument, and you pointed me towards some books, one of which I have read, and will come back to another time, however I am interested in your views.

Until this question can be addressed in simple terms, then I think you will continue to find sceptical voices both questioning the validity of your faith and failing to exhibit the respect for your faith position that you appear to seek.

Bob Robinson said...


Your post here proves my point about the limits of modern apologetics to prove without a shadow of doubt things related to faith. It is best suited for Christian Edification than for Outreach.


Bob Robinson said...


Yes, people have faith in almost anything they choose to have faith in.

However, I would refute Russell's Flying Teapot analogy with this: I do not advocate faith in Jesus Christ through an argument of ignorance. I am not claiming that people should believe what I believe because it has not been proven false.

The Flying Teapot cannot be proven to be false. But that is a lot different from the person of Jesus Christ. History can show us that there was indeed a Jesus of Nazareth, that he indeed died and was reported to be raised from the dead with witnesses to meeting the risen Christ, that there was a new sect of Judaism that followed this dead and risen Jesus as their Christ even with the threat of death as a result.

What we do with this is up to each of us. You can shrug your shoulders and say, "So what. He claimed to be God in the flesh. These followers were willing to die for the witness that they saw him risen. Big deal."

OR you can say, "Hey, that's possible - If there is a God (and I believe that there is) then why would he not come into this world to explain why things are so messed up and do something to make things right again?"

"...And, if this is REALLY God, then, why can't I believe that he can do things that are beyond my logical expectations (like miracles or the Virgin Birth)?"

It all starts with a belief in God, which I believe inherently exists in each of us, though it may have been dried up like a raisin in many of us because of our being enamored with scientific method and philosophical reason.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bob

Apologies for my delay in getting back to you. So much to do, including my first experience of surfing - great fun.

You said "It all starts with a belief in God, which I believe inherently exists in each of us, though it may have been dried up like a raisin in many of us because of our being enamored with scientific method and philosophical reason."

What do you have against the "scientific method and philosophical reasoning"?

If you were presented with scientific evidence which supported the resurrection or virgin birth, would you dismiss it? Do you think the wider Christian community would welcome it or reject it?


Bob Robinson said...


Surfing? Yikes! I guess you lived to tell about it.

Thanks for your always clarifying questions. The point of this post is this: Christian's attempts at Apologetics in the past 50 years has been trying to fight fire with fire. In other words, since scientific method and logical reason were being used to discount God, we were trying to use the same methodology to refute these arguments.

It could only take us so far, for God is beyond Science and Reason.

Don't get me wrong: God is NOT anti-science or is he anti-reason; these are part of his good Creation. But God being God, he cannot be reduced to a test-tube or a reasoned syllogism.

He is revealed in science and reason, but science and reason cannot be the ultimate arbiter of whether or not he exists or whether or not Jesus Christ is who he claims he is. Science and Reason can point toward these things (creational evidence points toward a creator God; historical evidence points to Jesus as a historical figure; eyewitness testimony points toward a risen Jesus; experiential testimony points toward the transformational power of God in people's lives), but not any of these things can prove that God is God.

So, faith remains faith.