By Jojo Ruba
When I was in grade 12, I was part of as many student clubs as I could be. I was elected to be on student council, joined the yearbook club, was part of the choir’s musical, and even showed up at a few juggling club meetings. I did all of this while I was taking a full course load. Eventually, the long days and lack of sleep took their toll and the quality of my work suffered. I had to cut back, dropping a few classes and clubs.
When Christians argue against using apologetics, it’s important to accept that apologetics also has limitations. Those of us defending the use of apologetics shouldn’t exaggerate what a reasoned defense of the faith can do. But even by acknowledging what apologetics can’t do, it becomes clear why apologetics is such a necessary part of the Christian life. Here are two of the top things apologetics “can’t do” that actually show why apologetics is essential.
1. Apologetics can’t replace relationships with people.
I was at a huge Christian youth event when I talked to a young woman who was sitting in an information booth for the conference. As I chatted with her, I mentioned the idea of learning good reasons to share our faith. Her response was that she didn’t really spend a lot of time doing that. Instead, she said, she just built relationships with people and that’s how people became Christians.
This popular argument against apologetics is attractive, especially for those of us who don’t like to “argue” or make others feel uncomfortable. And as apologists, we should be willing to agree that apologetics can’t replace relationships. But here’s a question that those who hold this view should be asked: “What do you talk about in those relationships to get people to become Christians?”
If you were to adopt the model this young woman advocates for, you would still have to learn how to explain the faith to someone you are in a relationship with. When the atheist you have befriended begins to ask why you believe in the Christian God or why you trust the Bible, would you simply say, “I don’t know but you should believe in that God because I’m your friend”? How much of a friend would you be with that attitude?
In contrast, no one I’ve heard teaching apologetics has ever come out against relationship building. In fact, in our training, we encourage Christians to learn how to begin a conversation so as to be in relationship with others around us.
The other point to remember is that the Bible never says we have to be in relationship with someone before we share our faith with that person. In fact, there are several examples where the opposite happened. For instance, Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell everything he has and then follow Him, prompting that man to leave and not have a relationship with Him (Matthew 19). He also tells a mocking thief that he was going to Paradise based on just a few words and no prior relationship (Luke 23). Philip also showed the Ethiopian eunuch who the Messiah was and then promptly disappeared (Acts 8). This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t build relationships when we can, but it does mean relationship-building and apologetics aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, relationship-building requires apologetics, though apologetics can be used outside of relationship.
2. Apologetics doesn’t appeal to a world that embraces relativism.
I was teaching an apologetics class when Ambrose interrupted the class to argue against what I was teaching on truth. He said that “apologetics” doesn’t work because our culture doesn’t embrace propositional truths.
This argument is popular among those who embrace the emergent church or the teachings of Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard (though it is debated whether they properly interpret him). The argument basically goes like this: Our culture has rejected modernity and all the hard claims about “truth” because we recognize that truth is subjective—it is always seen through the subjective understanding of flawed people. Therefore, the only way to reach a postmodern culture is to tell them stories instead of “facts.” People who embrace the Christian faith do so not because it is more rational, but because it meets their subjective “needs.”
Ambrose later wrote a public comment on our Facebook page that even goes further. He says not only is the “modern” view of truth unreliable, it actually contradicts the Christian message. He wrote:
Reason itself has to be sanctified to be of any use. 2 + 2 = 4 has a kind of rightness. But its rightness is defined in a closed system that is part of a fallen order. What becomes of “reason” and “arguments” once they are sanctified? My point is, the modern apologetic obsession with reason and arguments is already too great an acquiescence to the present age and, by association, its ruler. We are called to get a new mind, not one that thinks more skillfully by the world’s own definition. The entire underlying worldview of fbb, from what I have seen, is unbiblical.
Now to be fair, Ambrose is right that human reason is tainted by sin. He is also right that apologetics simply doesn’t appeal to a postmodern mindset—it doesn’t “work” in changing everyone’s minds. As apologists we should be willing to accept that apologetics can’t make someone rational.
However, we already know this because Jesus promised that when we talk to others about Him, they will say all kinds of evil about us (Matthew 5:11). But this fact doesn’t make Jesus conclude that, “Lack of appeal means you shouldn’t share reasons for your beliefs!” Rather, He makes clear that our success or failure has nothing to do with whether the person accepts the arguments. Rather, we are commanded to bring these reasons to people so that the gospel can be understood (1 Peter 3:15). In fact, that’s exactly why Luke said he wrote the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts so that his friend, Theophilus could know the “exact truth” of what he believed (Luke 1: 1-4).
And surprisingly, Ambrose’s own arguments show that he can’t escape the need for reason. When he argues against reason, he does so using arguments he thinks are reasonable! In fact, postmodern Christians who chastise apologists for defending the Christian faith must use their own rules of logic to come to their conclusions! They make an observation (culture rejects truth) and come up with a conclusion that they think will help rectify the problem (Christians should reject modernism’s obsession with truth). Despite its tainted nature, they can’t escape the tool of reason to help them come to their conclusion. Which is why when I asked Ambrose how he came to that conclusion (that is, how did he reason his way to that view?), he never responded.
As Dallas Willard says:
Today, by contrast, we commonly depend upon the emotional pull of stories and images to “move” people. We fail to understand that, in the very nature of the human mind, emotion does not reliably generate belief or faith, if it generates it at all. Not even “seeing” does, unless you know what you are seeing. It is understanding, insight, that generates belief. In vain do we try to change peoples’ heart or character by “moving” them to do things in ways that bypass their understanding.
In my next article, I’ll discuss two more things apologetics can’t do, but which nonetheless underscore its importance.
 Dallas Willard, “Jesus the Logician,” Christian Scholar’s Review, 28 no. 4 (Summer 1999): 605-614. http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=39.