Practical Apologetics

“Practical Apologetics”

by Rev. Douglas J. Douma

Keynote Speech given at The Geneva Institute for Christian Thought, July 18, 2018

When one hears the word “practical” he might be inclined to think of the philosophy of pragmatism. Pragmatism assesses the truth of a belief in terms of the success of its practical applications. The pragmatist wants to know what “works.” If Christian apologetics were to be based on pragmatism, it would seek for the method of argument that best “works”—that most successfully produces converts.

The pragmatic approach, however, is misguided for a number of reasons. For one, it is difficult, if not impossible, to know that a conversion is genuine. And even if conversions could be counted by number, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to determine the relative contributions of the various arguments which may have led to each particular conversion. Therefore, since the metrics of pragmatism are not measurable, the approach is untenable. Pragmatism itself does not “work.” Furthermore, the pragmatic approach makes the mistake of giving credit to man rather than to the Holy Spirit for the conversion of sinners. In truth, it is ultimately the work of Holy Spirit that converts sinners, not the force of the apologetic arguments themselves. The apologete converts no one, his arguments never “work.” There is a zero percent success rate of man converting man to Christ. But the success rate of the Holy Spirit is one hundred percent. No one can resist God’s will.

With this in mind—that the Holy Spirit alone effectually calls men—it should be understood that there are quite different answers to the following two questions: 1) Why do I believe in Christ? and, 2) Are there good reasons to believe in Christ? We must not answer these two questions in the same way. While one might believe that there are in fact good reasons to believe in Christ, it is ultimately not for any of these reasons that we do so believe. The single effective reason why one believes in Jesus Christ is because of the Holy Spirit working in him.
Consider what the Westminster Confession of Faith says when it comes to belief in the truth of the Scriptures:

“We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to a high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God; yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority therefore, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.” – WCF, Chapter 1, Part 5

With the Confession we must agree; while there are many arguments for the faith, our full persuasion is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit.

But it would be a mistake to conclude from this that the apologete, the preacher, or the evangelist plays no role in conversion. While the effective cause of conversion is the Holy Spirit, the preacher is ordinarily God’s chosen instrument. Speaking of the importance of the preacher’s role in conversion, Paul writes in his letters to the Romans,

“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news. But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:14-17)

The preacher, as Paul shows, then functions as an instrument of God, preaching God’s word so that those who hear might believe. Rather than seeking the “what works” of pragmatism, the goal of the preacher is to present the truth of the Holy Scriptures. Apologetic methodology likewise is not to be guided by the pragmatism of man’s decisions, but by the Biblical truth of God’s word.

While knowing that the Christian is to be an instrument of God in the effectual calling of the Holy Spirit for the conversion of God’s chosen people, one might yet rightly ask, “how does one practice apologetics?” “What should our methodology be?” And what does God’s word teach us to say? On what theory are we to guide our practice?

Before we look into those questions, we must note an important something about the relationship between theory and practice. Those who condescendingly say “that’s your theory” and then explain their own view are usually making a claim that their own view is of reality itself, not merely a theory of reality. Truly however, they are merely giving their own theory while wanting to refer to it as something else. They should more honestly say, “That is your theory, but I think I have a better theory.” It must be understood that theory is theory of practice. Theory does not exist for its own sake, but is a mental model to explain reality. A person simply cannot practice apologetics without some theory, however foggy, of what he is doing. And so we seek an ever better and ever clearer theory of apologetics so that we might practice it rightly.

So then, how should one practice apologetics?

I. Do so with gentleness and respect.

Perhaps the most central verse of apologetic concern is 1 Peter 3:15, “… always be 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.”

The “gentleness and respect” of the English Standard Version is “meekness and fear” in the King James Version. And while the “respect” or “fear” refers to our attitude toward God, the “gentleness” or “meekness” must refer to our attitude toward men.
Commenting on this verse, Gordon Clark writes,

“The reasons [that we believe] are to be given in meekness and fear. A parade of learning on the one hand and a smart-aleck reply on the other are equally uncalled for. People are not always altogether logical, and they often judge the value of our reply by the manner in which it is given. And among those who ask a reason are some who will seize any opportunity for ridiculing the gospel. To this end they will use our evil conduct or even any legitimate conduct which can be put in bad light. We cannot always at the moment defend ourselves against such prejudice. If we act in good conscience, if we have faithfully tried to obey God’s commands, then we have done all we can to make these enemies of Christ ashamed of their false accusations. Fail though we may to impress this particular person, the contrast between his evil words and our good conversations in Christ may very well produce an effect in those who are watching us.” – Gordon H. Clark, Peter Speaks Today, p. 121.

Like Peter, Paul says, “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Col. 4:5-6)

John Calvin comments on this passage saying, “He [Paul] reckons as tasteless everything that does not edify. The term grace is employed so as to be opposed to talkative-ness, taunts, and all sorts of trifles which are either injurious or vain.”

Along these lines of “gentleness,” J. Gresham Machen writes that the defense of the faith should be 1) “perfectly open and above board”; that is honest, and 2) “of a scholarly kind” focusing on the arguments and never analyzing another person’s motives. (Education, Christianity, and the State, p. 30, 31)

The graciousness Paul demands, like the gentleness demanded by Peter, is all too rare in contemporary Christian apologetics. There is an army of Christian apologists who, it seems to me, are seeking to win arguments by any means necessary. But intimidation, abusive ad hominem, and other un-Christ-like approaches have no place in Peter and Paul’s admonitions. Our speech is to be gracious, but consider the titles of various contemporary books on apologetics: Pushing the Antithesis; We Destroy Arguments; and How to Answer the Fool. Now the content of these books might not be as ungracious as their titles indicate, but would you not be embarrassed if an unbeliever seeking genuine counsel saw such titles on your bookshelf? You are to give a reason for the Faith that you have. Reasons are to be reasonable and unemotional. There is no benefit to being hostile or uncharitable when presenting the reason.

“Gentleness” then answers the question of how we should argue, but it does not itself answer the question of what we should argue. A Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness might have plenty of gentleness all the while teaching gross errors. But we must avoid error and speak the truth. So then, we must ask, what reason or reasons should we give for our faith?

II. There are many reasons to believe in Jesus Christ.

First, it is important to note that there is not one single argument that suffices for all apologetics. When Peter said, “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” it is important to note that he said “a reason” not “the reason.” That is, there are various reasons or arguments for the Christian Faith that might be given upon each their proper occasion. Just as the preacher is to preach the “whole counsel of God,” (Acts 20:27) the apologete is to defend the faith using knowledge from the whole Scriptures.

Much could be said about the supposed proofs for the existence of God. But let this comment suffice on the topic: the Bible nowhere seeks to prove the existence of God, but rather His existence is always assumed.

If there were merely one foolproof argument for the Christian faith, we would only need to repeat it in each and every situation. Some Christian apologetes virtually do this. But God uses various Biblical truths to bring people to faith. And he uses various ministers as his instruments. And while men inevitably have errors mixed in with the truth of their speech, at least some Biblical truth is necessary to be presented for one to come to faith, to believe in Jesus Christ. Consider, for example, the results of a poll I recently conducted in a discussion group that I’m a member of. I asked the question “What preacher or writer did God use to bring you to faith?”
The answers included:

1. “Robbie Symons of Harvest Bible Chapel in Oakville, ON, Canada.”
2. “The late D. James Kennedy’s TV ministry.”
3. “Chaplain Dan Norwood, a card-carrying Fundamental Dispensational Premillenialist that served in the Salvation Army.”
4. “Hearing Joel Beeke’s sermon on Eternity left a big influence on me when I was in my teens in addition to reading Pressing into the Kingdom of God by Jonathan Edwards.”
5. “RC Sproul.”
6. “It was the Romanian version of Vernon McGee’s – Thru the Bible Radio Broadcast.”
7. “My Papaw, a country Baptist preacher.”
8. “Reading of the Indonesian translation of the Canon of Dort.”
9. “Clark’s ‘God and Evil,’ from Religion, Reason, and Revelation, and Clark’s commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith, What Do Presbyterians Believe?”
10. “Rev. John Baker, M.Div, Free Presbyterian Church of NA, and John Calvin.”
11. “Dr. Lorraine Boettner and Arthur W Pink.”
12. “The works of John W. Robbins.”
13. “Greg Bahnsen and his books Always Ready and Pushing the Antithesis.”
14. “Francis Schaeffer.”
15. “My father.”
16. “A religious education school teacher at 16 years old.”

What does this mean? For one, it means that conversion does not only occur through one effective argument, for each of these preachers had different approaches, some even lacking considerable orthodoxy. And it also means that God can bring people to faith even through imperfect instruments; even through you! But there must be something of His truth. Therfore, our goal must be to glorify God by presenting Biblical truths.

III. Clear the way for the Christian presentation.

Set against God’s truth there are various religions and secular philosophies. Often, if not always, the unbeliever is held captive by one or more of these non-Christian systems. And in order for him to believe the truth of the Scriptures he must renounce his belief in these lies. The unbeliever has a sin problem, but he also has a knowledge problem. Though the Holy Spirit alone can convict him of his sin, the preacher or apologete can be used as God’s instrument to correct the unbeliever’s knowledge problem.

The unbeliever must be shown both that his views are false and that the teachings of the Scriptures are true. In defending the faith therefore it is valuable to understand the various opponent’s views. The more knowledge you have of their beliefs the better. The more knowledge you have of their beliefs the more likely that you will be able to find contradictions in their views. But, perhaps more importantly, you must be greatly learned in the Scriptures so that you can answer the objections (often misconceptions of the Bible’s teaching) of the non-believer.
If a person doesn’t know the Gospel, they cannot believe it. And if they have an objection to Christianity, that objection must be demolished. Thus we must defeat each and every argument one by one. The more learned one is, the more prepared one is, the better.

To begin, one book I suggest as an excellent guide to understanding and critiquing some of the cult-like religions is Walter Martin’s The Kingdom of the Cults. This book will also help you understand more clearly what Christianity is, as you learn what it is not. But this one book will not suffice for learning how to address all unbelievers. You must study broadly. Do not be afraid to read something of atheism, Mormonism, Christian Science, Islam, etc. Because Christianity is true there we should not fear the writings of unbelievers.

IV. The Christian Presentation

But to move on with our lecture, after showing the contradictions of some non-Christian system or systems, the apologete must them make a presentation of the Christian faith. This is to include the gospel—that Jesus died and rose again, showing him, based on the Old Testament prophecies, to be the promised Messiah and Lord, ushering in the kingdom of God with its justice and peace, and forgiving the sins of God’s people so that they are seen as righteous in His sight. In contrast to the non-Christian systems it should be noted that Christianity is consistent and provides reasons to live on the earth and to have hope for eternal life. Sinful, stubborn man will not respond to the Biblical message. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit will man be born again. But while the Holy Spirit does this converting, the preacher is God’s instrument providing the necessary Biblical knowledge of which man believes for salvation.

And so we have a two-step process. Gordon Clark well explains:

“The process of the reductio must be explained to him. There are two parts to the process. First the apologete must show that the axioms of secularism result in self-contradiction. … Then, second, the apologete must exhibit the internal consistency of the Christian system. When these two points have been made clear, the Christian will urge the unbeliever to repudiate the axioms of secularism and accept God’s revelation. That is, the unbeliever will be asked to change his mind completely, to repent. This type of apologetic argument … [does not] deny that in fact repentance comes only as a gift from God” – Gordon H. Clark, Karl Barth’s Theological Method, p. 110.

V. An Example.

Finally, we’ll conclude with an excellent example of “practical apologetics” in a letter Dr. Clark wrote to his nephew. As I read this, note the gentleness in which the letter is written. Note also that both the unbeliever’s worldview is critiqued and the truth of the Gospel is presented.

[Letter from Gordon H. Clark to his nephew, Feb 15, 1974]

Dear D—,

Aunt Ruth and I were immensely pleased to get your letter about Christmas time. Five pages, no less. Wonderful. [Personal content removed]

We are happy that you are doing so well in music. In advising students I have always said that a student should go into a line of endeavor that he really likes. We all need money to live, but to me it would be torture to spend a life doing what you do not like, even for a good salary.
You say you are more a doer than a thinker. Well, I can understand that you may not like to study and write books, you may not like cancer research and microbiology. All right: music is fine; I enjoy it. One of my brilliant students, a girl who came to college with only two years of high school, and made A’s in all classes but mine (for I am an ogre), practiced her violin eight hours a day (or maybe only six – no wonder she got only a B in Logic); she then started to become a neuro-surgeon, and is now in McGill in Montreal, with a side job in an orchestra.

But even in music one must be not only a doer, he must also be a thinker. Is not music based on theory? I wager Beethoven did a good bit of thinking. You speak about learning by experience. Experience is a very poor teacher. If you wish to understand scales and harmony, it is foolish to spend your time experimenting. You only repeat the trials and errors of earlier people. Books tell you about their mistakes. No one would think of making advances in cancer before learning what has already been done. Why start from scratch, when you can get a hundred years “experience” in a few weeks of reading?

But there is something more important. Experience, even Beethoven’s, never provides you with norms of judgment. Of course, if you never heard music, experienced it, you would have nothing to judge. But you can hear music, and if you have no idea of what is good, you are left to your own uneducated reactions. The formulation of aesthetic norms is an immensely difficult undertaking. There are easier things and better examples of what I mean.

Without, however, leaving your field, may I speak of your constructing radio programs? You mentioned “Scattered Arts.” You also spoke of “creative programming.” Now, is it not obvious that to do these things you must have some idea of what a program should be? Experience will tell us what programs are being broadcast. You can compose a list of all the programs of a hundred stations for a week. But the mere observation of all these data goes no distance in deciding which are better than others. To judge quality and purpose requires more than mere experience. You must have norms. Norms are statements of what should be; experience gives us only what is. And from is there is no logical route to ought.

This, of course, is where philosophy comes in. Somehow or other a thinker will try to establish norms. He must construct an argument. His critics ask, Is it a good or poor argument. And his critics must have their own norms for judging him. Observation is of no help in all this.
If all this is so with respect to music and radio, think how much more applicable it is to politics. We can list large numbers of actual political actions taken by the parliaments of various nations; we can sometimes perhaps see whether these actions fulfilled their intended purposes; but experience can never tell whether those legislative acts and their results were good. Our country, with its Christian background, used to think that murder, torture, and kidnapping were bad. But did you notice that when Hearst’s daughter was kidnapped, and a ransom of food to the poor was demanded, the older poor in California said they would not accept it, but the younger said they would take it. Apparently the younger generation contains a greater proportion of people who approve of kidnapping, hijacking, and the violence that occurs in many parts of the world. The terrorists think terror is good. Others think that terror is bad. To decide, one needs norms. These are statements of what ought to be done; they are not lists of what has been done.

Now, you say that you can see no clear plan in the world or life. You say you had “an intense personal relationship with Christ.” This is experience, and to tell the truth, I do not think much of it. You admit that it was largely emotion, and dependent on the “psyching up” by other people. But your state of mind then fell apart, as you yourself say, and you found too many absurdities in your environment (I am repeating some of your words), so that you could see no plan in life, and could not think a person responsible for what he does.
The reason, I believe, is that you depended on experience. And it seems to me that experience by itself is just as chaotic as you say. What I think you should have depended on is revelation.
The Bible reveals that all people are born sinners. They do all want to do evil, and everybody succeeds to various degrees. People are by nature, by birth, enemies of God. Naturally a world of such people produces apparent chaos. Mere looking at the world discloses no plan of history, or guide of life. But revelation does.

As for the plan of history, the revelation says that God chose Abraham for a certain purpose; and Moses – the Exodus and its details were a contest between God and the religion of Egypt. But most important, Christ came, died, and was resurrected from the grave. These events are explained in the revelation. Everybody dies. I shall soon die. Strange as it seems to me, who remembers my high school days so well, I am an old man, and cannot live much longer. Well, Pontius Pilate died too, and so did the Pharisees. But Christ died in order to pay the penalty for the sins of those who should take him as Lord and Savior. This is the significance, and it is discovered, not in experience, but in revelation. That Christ rose from the dead assures us that his death accomplished what he intended.

Further, on a world wide historical level, the Bible predicts that the Jews shall return to Palestine. For two thousand years that seemed impossible. What other people has preserved its identity for so long and though scattered returned to their ancient land? The significance is in revelation, even if experience tells us that the Jews are in fact in Jerusalem.
Then on a personal level, much smaller in scope than world history, the revelation gives us the norms for life. Terror, kidnapping are wrong because God condemns them. The Ten Commandments, and the many derivative precepts, are the norms by which we ought to judge music, morals, politics, and ourselves.

None of this comes to us by “doing rather than thinking,” or by experience and certainly not by emotion. It comes in an intelligible revelation. It comes by believing that God has established these norms and not some others.

Atheism can establish no norms whatever. Examine their arguments and see for yourself. Atheism has nothing to offer me, who cannot last too long now. What do atheists promise for after death? They promise no more for this life either. Bertrand Russell based his life on “unyielding despair.” But he had no reason for living at all. It may be compacting the matter too much to suit some people, but I think I can properly reduce the matter to a choice is between Christianity and purposeless, absurd, chaotic despair.

Cordially, your uncle,