What's Wrong With Apologetics? (Part 1 of 9)
Apologetics (providing evidence for one’s faith) is a bad word in some circles.
In others, apologetics is an entirely negative enterprise: that is, it only tangles up opponents and exposes their intellectual incoherence while refusing to provide positive reasons to believe in Christianity.
Even in my own tradition of Lutheranism, there are divergent assessments of the apologetic task. In this post, I want to brainstorm some reasons why folks might disapprove of apologetics.
- False humility. Some worry that sophisticated arguments for the faith make one arrogant, or assume a position of theological Arminianism, whereby one bases faith solely on the intellect and free will of the individual believer.
- Barthian compromise. Following the neo-orthodox theology of Karl Barth (1886-1968), some have attempted to carve out protected intellectual space that is radically distinct from other fields of knowledge. While they are unable to make a public case for the faith, Barthians seek to develop an intellectual zone that is immune from the attacks of unbelieving philosophers, historians and scientists. They can’t be proven wrong, but they can’t show how they are right.
- Anti-intellectualism. Some simply dislike academic discussions. They assume that faith is purely emotional and that intellectual considerations are irrelevant. They aren’t interested in facts but focus on feelings.
- Embarrassment concerning the tactics-simplistic apologists. Some Christians, more interested in intellectual pursuits than the anti-intellectuals, would rather keep some popular apologists out of the limelight because their facile, uninformed, and simplistic arguments for the faith make it look as if Christianity is on shaky—or pseudo-scientific—ground. They’d rather sweep the conversation under the rug so they don’t get lumped in with simplistic thinking.
- Failure to distinguish the magisterial from the ministerial use of reason. Classical protestant scholars from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries clearly understood reason in a nuanced way. They rejected the magisterial use of reason, which attempts to judge the mysteries of faith, such as the Lord’s Supper, the Resurrection, or the Virgin Birth. They accepted the ministerial use of reason, which allowed scholars to know whether a text was actually a good candidate for being part of the canon of revelation, and what those revelatory texts say about important subjects like the deity of Christ. When this distinction is ignored, many Christians simply try to throw reason out altogether because they think it creates heresies and intellectual idols.
- Lack of nerve. This one frightens me most. I suspect that at least some Christians dislike apologetics because they are afraid it might turn out that the faith that gives them comfort isn’t true after all. They gain a life free from worry that some new evidence will arise that shows their beliefs are false. Nonetheless, they are unable to explain to others why they should embrace their beliefs.
- Sectarian xenophobia. Some simply are uncomfortable engaging folks with different views. Good apologetics asks the apologist to truly understand their conversation partner’s perspective, and this is can be a psychologically difficult experience. This sort would rather focus on preaching to the choir than invite the unwashed heathen to the party.
- Pluralistic courtesy. This sort finds apologetics too intellectually violent. They don’t want to be bigoted, and they think asserting that one’s position is the best explanation for evidence is somehow discourteous towards those who hold to different beliefs.
Of course, I’m not saying that all those who oppose the apologetic project do so for these reasons. Moreover, I don’t wish to create straw men here; I’m merely brainstorming possible explanations for this anti-apologetic sentiment.
Nonetheless, I remain perplexed that any Christian would reject apologetics in light of 1 Peter 3:15: “...but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect..." (ESV)
My future blog posts for this site will explore each of these potential reasons in succession. Feel free to comment and suggest explanations I may have missed. Welcome to a conversation about the conversation.