Giving a Reason for the Faith: Apologetics and Evangelism in Postmodern Culture
PAGES 8, 9
Have you ever spoken with a non-Christian acquaintance about the gospel? People can raise lots of questions. "How do you know the Bible is true and the Qur'an or Book of Mormon is not?" "How do you know that Jesus' resurrection is fact, not fiction?" "If Christianity is the real thing, why do so many Christians act worse than non-Christians?" "Are all the rest of us going to hell?" Non-Christians have lots of issues with the claim that Christianity is the only Truth.
If you've taught high school catechism or been in an adult discussion group, you know that Christians wonder about these things too. Even some of us who profess Jesus as Lord and Savior can be uncomfortable with stating that other religions are false and dangerous. It is especially hard to say these things to good non-Christian friends.
Agnosticism (the belief that we don't know and really can't know about ultimate Truth) is especially characteristic of contemporary culture, often labeled postmodernism. Postmodernism is a variety of outlooks that modify modernism—the Enlightenment belief that human reason can determine the Truth using science and optimize humanity with the right technology and social system. The World Wars and Cold War convinced most people that modernism is a false god: religion hasn't died out; conflicts between religions and ideologies still threaten world peace. Responding to the failure of modernism, postmodernism has more limited expectations of reason, technology, and politics, and focuses on helping us get along in spite of our limitations and differences. Postmodernism makes some sense.
But there is a problem in postmodern thought in the way it views Truth in a world with a plurality of religious and cultural traditions. Postmodernism asserts that there are various truths, so it celebrates the diversity of religions and cultures. Any claim that one perspective is the Truth for all people is considered arrogant, intolerant, and oppressive. Postmodernism rejects traditional religions (such as Christianity and Islam) and modern philosophies (such as scientific humanism and Marxism) that claim to have Truth. It preaches, "I'm OK, you're OK," to a pluralistic culture.
This attitude is in the air we breathe. For many of the non-Christians with whom we want to share the gospel, it's simply common sense. Even committed Christians are affected by it. As ambassadors of Christ, we must deal with it directly and helpfully.
A caricature of postmodernism, call it "pop-postmodernism," celebrates a non-intellectual approach to life. It claims that the average person no longer even cares about the "head knowledge" involved in the search for Truth. People are pursuing more important things—having successful "journeys" and fulfilling relationships, sharing their stories, making a difference, and feeling good about it all. Pop-postmodernism suggests that contemporary people don't want, don't need, and can't handle sustained thought about Truth.
Some Christian ministries reflect pop-postmodernism. Their approach to worship, evangelism, and discipling effectively engages postmodern feelings, attitudes, and cultural tastes. They present the Truth of Jesus Christ. But they tend to avoid "left-brain" or "linear" thinking. Expositional preaching, doctrinal instruction, and contemporary Christian world-view are marginal or absent. A few proponents of pop-postmodern Christianity dismiss concern for theology and apologetics as a hangover of modern rationalism.
But pop-postmodernism is misrepresentation. Postmodernism, in fact, strongly endorses critical thinking even though it rejects rationalism. The way to engage postmodern people is not by avoiding questions of Truth. A wiser, more biblical approach to ministry addresses our minds as well as our feelings, relationships, and lifestyles. God made us in his image as unities of body, mind, soul, and spirit to live in relationship with others and with him. Christian ministry ought to address minds as integral aspects of whole persons, especially when culture thoughtfully questions Truth.
I do not claim that the mind is most important or that ministry should marginalize people's feelings, relationships, and aspirations. Admittedly, sometimes Christianity, including our own tradition, has been too intellectual, emphasizing doctrine while overlooking matters of the heart and life. Sometimes our theological wrangling has wounded souls, split Christ's church, and diverted its mission. But marginalizing knowledge of the Truth is an equal and opposite mistake. Let's pursue an integral approach to life and ministry. Apologetics makes an important contribution.
The Importance of Apologetics
Apologetics uses the best reasons we have to defend God's revealed Truth from Charges that it is false, harmful, or unbelievable. In classical Greece, an apology was not an expression of regret but a defense of the accused in court. Socrates' trial was an apology. But apologetics is not Greek philosophy imposed on Christianity. It is urged by Scripture. "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Pet. 3:15). The Greek word for "answer" is apologia, from which we get the term apologetics—giving reasons for the faith. Paul's case before Agrippa, his sermon to the Athenian philosophers, and his defense of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 use apologetics. To support his claims, he gives reasons that might be persuasive to the persons he is addressing.
In each historical situation, Christians have done the same. In the early church apologetics developed as Christians answered charges that Jesus' resurrection was a fraud and that worship of Jesus was treason to the Emperor. During the Crusades, Thomas Aquinas's Summa contra gentiles [The Case against Unbelievers] was a handbook for educated Christians to use in debate with Muslims. Pascal responded to Enlightenment deism, rationalism, and atheism. In the nineteenth century, Darwinism and higher criticism elicited responses from learned Christians, including the Reformed theologians Hodge, Warfield, Kuyper, and Bavinck. C.S. Lewis and Pope John Paul II were great twentieth-century apologists who took on secular humanism, Marxism, and religious pluralism. Apologetics has been important for Christian witness. Apologetics in today's culture must address pluralism. Before people will consider whether the gospel is the Truth, they need to be convinced that it's OK to claim to have the Truth. Consider how the following story could help postmodernists see why it might be "reasonable" to say "Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life."
A young doctor was visiting a country where an epidemic broke out. The disease was fatal, progressed slowly, and had to be treated early. Local doctors offered various medicines, all of which were ultimately ineffective. The visiting doctor knew the real cure because she had studied with the scientist who discovered it. Local people preferred their own doctors and distrusted the visitor: "How dare she say, 'I have the cure. Your doctors don't'?" But she was right. Those who took her treatment lived. Those who stayed with local doctors died.
This story can help pluralists see a couple of things. First, it is not always false and immoral for someone to say, "I have the Truth." In fact, it would be false and immoral for the young doctor not to share her truth. Second, everything depends on whether the young doctor does have the truth. If her treatment is just another folk remedy, her claim is false and immoral. But if she really has the truth from an authoritative source, then she must say so. Truth can be OK.
The point is this: If Christianity is just another product of human culture, then we have no right to claim the Truth. But if the gospel is accurate information, otherwise unavailable, from an authoritative source—a revelation from God—then it is true and those who know it must say so and share it.
But now the pluralist asks: How do you know that the Bible is true? We respond by admitting that we can't prove divine inspiration or the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Luke 1:1-4 is impressive, but it does not prove the factual accuracy of the gospel any more than a witness's oath in court verifies his testimony. However, no one has disproved what Luke says he so carefully wrote. The power of higher criticism, the Jesus Seminar, and The DaVinci Code to falsify biblical history is vastly overblown. Scholarship supports at least as strong a case that the Gospels are historical as that they are mythical "spin."
So we can't prove or disprove that the Bible is Truth. But that does not reduce belief in Scripture to an irrational leap of faith. Even in postmodern culture, we think it is rational to believe people whom we have good reason to think are trustworthy and knowledgeable: doctors, salespersons, witnesses in court. In the same way, the Christian church trusts the Bible because it has good reason to believe that the people who wrote it by God's inspiration are "trustworthy witnesses" (John 21:24). We can't prove it, but as far as anyone can tell, the way the biblical books were written and passed on to be canonized by the church is reliable and trustworthy. Scripture has all the earmarks of a trustworthy, knowledgeable witness. It stands up very well in comparison with other alleged revelations from God. We can't prove that the Bible speaks Truth, but it is reasonable to believe that it does.
Whether postmodern people believe the Word of Truth depends on whether it elicits their trust. Reformed evangelists and apologists leave that to the Holy Spirit. Even on a human level, no amount of reasoning can convince people to trust something they don't find trustworthy. But trust has its reasons, and apologetics points them out.
Like all ministry, apologetics ought to be done with love and prayer. It ought to respect people's personalities, educational level, cultural habits, and their cherished beliefs and aspirations as it speaks the Truth in ways that they find relevant and persuasive.