By Dr. Greg Bahnsen
Christians in the ancient world knew what it was to have accusations and ridicule directed at them for their religious convictions and practices. The report of Jesus' resurrection was taken as an idle tale (Luke 24:11), a lie (Matthew 28:13-15), an impossibility (Acts 26:8). For preaching it, believers were arrested by the Jews (Acts 4:2-3) and mocked by the Greek philosophers (Acts 17:32). On the day of Pentecost the disciples were accused of being drunk (Acts 2:13). Stephen was accused of opposing previous revelation (Acts 6:11-14). Paul was accused of introducing new gods (Acts 17:18-20). The church was accused of political insurrection (Acts 17:6-7). Experts openly contradicted what the Christians taught (Acts 13:45) and prejudicially vilified their persons (Acts 14:2). So, on the one hand, the Christian message was a stumblingblock to Jews and utter foolishness to Greeks (I Corinthians 1:23).
On the other hand, the early Christians had to guard against the wrong kind of positive acceptance of what they proclaimed. The apostles were confused for gods by advocates of pagan religion (Acts 14:11-13), given unwelcome commendation by soothsayers (Acts 16:16-18), and had their message absorbed by heretical legalists (Acts 15:1, 5). Twentieth-century believers can sympathize with their brothers in the ancient world. Our Christian faith continues to see the same variety of attempts to oppose and undermine it.
There is a large number of ways in which Christian truth-claims come under attack today. They are challenged as to their meaningfulness. The possibility of miracles, revelation, and incarnation are questioned. Doubt is cast upon the deity of Christ or the existence of God. The historical or scientific accuracy of the Bible is attacked. Scriptural teaching is rejected for not being logically coherent. Conscious life following physical death, everlasting damnation, and a future resurrection are not readily accepted. The way of salvation is found disgusting or unnecessary. The nature of God and the way of salvation are falsified by heretical schools of thought. Competing religious systems are set over against Christianity -- or some try to assimilate it into their own thought forms. The ethics of Scripture is criticized. The psychological or political adequacy of Christianity is looked down upon.
These and many, many other lines of attack
are directed against Biblical Christianity. It is the job of apologetics
to refute them and demonstrate the truth of the Christian proclamation
and worldview -- to "cast down reasonings and every high
thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God" (2 Corinthians
The Low Road
By studying the objections of unbelievers and preparing to reason with them, we take the high road of apologetics, the road of obedience to the direction of our Lord and Savior. His categorical claim was "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6). The apologist responds to the objections of unbelievers in a way which sets forth the objective truth of Christianity and the exclusive character of the system. He or she offers reasons for belief, vindicating the Christian worldview over against competing systems of thought and living.
Not all believers (or professing Christians) have chosen to take that high road. It has often happened that those speaking for the Christian faith settle for much less (especially but not exclusively in the current century). They have settled for much less than apologetics by reducing Christian commitment to subjectivism. It is certainly true that Christianity brings us a sense of personal peace and confidence before God, and this inner experience of the faith being right and our own coming to be right with God (cf. the witness of the Spirit, Rom. 8:16) cannot adequately be communicated in words. However appeals to this inner feeling do not constitute an argument which should persuade others of the truth of Christianity.
There is an important difference between confidence and certainty, just as there is an important difference between subjective acceptability and objective truth. Confidence is a psychological property, a feeling of assurance that some proposition is true. Many people feel quite confident of things, however, which prove to be notoriously false; yet the confidence of others turns out to be reliable. So the best we can say is that the presence of psychological assurance is not an adequate indicator of who possesses the truth and who does not. Certainty -- as opposed to confidence -- is technically the property of a proposition (or set of propositions), not of a person. The certainty of a proposition is the property that it cannot fail to be true. The truth of Christianity is not simply an autobiographical quality, telling us something about its acceptability to this or that individual person. The apologist defends the objective truth of the faith. That is, the apologist maintains that its truth has a public nature, open to inspection, and independent of what anybody thinks or feels about it (positively or negatively).
Another low road which some professing Christians take in response to unbelieving objections to the faith is the road of relativism. This is closely allied with subjectivism in many cases but constitutes a distinct error of its own. The subjectivist suppresses or denies the public nature of Christian truth, but still distinguishes truth from error; he believes Christianity to be true -- and bases this on unargued feelings -- and contrawise believes the non-Christian viewpoint to be false.
Relativism on the other hand believes that all beliefs and convictions (or all religious beliefs anyway) are conditioned by cultural factors and individual biases in such a way that there cannot be any absolute (unqualified) truth. If the Christian proclaims that God is a person, but Hindus teach that the supreme reality is impersonal, and if the Christian warns that all men will answer to God for their sins one day, but the master of some cult insists that God would never punish anyone for misdeeds -- the relativist would say these disagreements cannot be resolved. What is "true for you" is not necessarily what is "true for me." Relativism is either hypocritical or self-contradictory. Sometimes people play at relativism but do not really mean it. When the chips are down they want to insist that some things are absolutely true, even though other things are not -- and of course they will be judge as to where to draw the line, as though truth could be a mere matter of personal convenience! Other times people contradict themselves by insisting quite absolutely that there is no absolute truth -- thereby providing in what they say the very basis for rejecting what they say.
Christianity does not claim to be relatively true, but absolutely and universally so. Furthermore, as a religious system it claims to be exclusively true. This is naturally quite offensive in a pluralistic, democratic age. "Everybody has a right to believe about God what they wish," we will be reminded. But that is not the point. The right to believe something does not translate it into something which is true. Some religious perspectives teach that there are a variety of ways of reaching God or serving Him (or It) -- many paths to the top of the mountain. Christianity is not one of them, though. Eclectic and smorgasbord approaches to religion may wish to incorporate Christianity into their religious options (one more of many), but in the nature of the case Christianity cannot be assimilated to their outlook. Christianity claims that Christ alone is the divine Savior, claims that only through Him can anyone be right with God, and claims that what we believe about God is restricted to what He reveals about Himself (thus excluding human imagination).
The High Road of Sanctified Argumentation
As opposed to the low roads of subjectivism, relativism and eclecticism, the pages of the New Testament show us Christians who responded to the objections and challenges of unbelievers with apologetical arguments for the truth of the faith. The very term "apologetic" (found in 1 Peter 3:15) was used in the ancient world for the defense which an accused person offered in a court of law. Subjectivism and relativism and eclecticism would do a defendant absolutely no good in vindicating his innocence. The early Christians pressed the claims of truth and were able to defend them, clearly setting the truth of Christ in antithesis to the erroneous ideas which contradict it. And they did this whether they were formerly fishermen, tax-collectors, or academic students of the law.
Notice how the New Testament describes
the proclamation and defense of Christian faith by its earliest
Peter proclaimed, Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him [Jesus] both Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36).
Saul increased the more in strength and confounded the Jews that dwelt at Damascus, proving that Jesus is the Messiah (Acts 9:22).
As his custom was, Paul went into the
synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them
from the Scriptures (Acts 17:2).
So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there, [including] certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (Acts 17:17).
Every Sabbath he reasoned in the
synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks (Acts 18:4).
Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God... [and later] reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus (Acts 19:8-9).
When objections are raised to Christianity, it is our obligation to present reasoned answers in defense. We must argue with those who oppose the truth of God's word.
Offering arguments in favor of certain conclusions should not be confused with being "argumentative" or contentious in one's demeanor. The Bible exhorts us to the former, while prohibiting the latter. Presenting a reason for the hope that is within us does not demand that we do so in an offensive or arrogant way. So well-meaning Christians who say "we shouldn't argue with people if we would be Christ-like" have something valuable to say, but are not saying it clearly and correctly. Arguing is not in itself wrong. The apostles quite obviously engaged in arguments with unbelievers. However the apostles also knew of a temperament and way of communication which dishonors the Lord. They could speak of "perverse disputing" -- or as one translation puts it "constant friction between men of corrupt mind" (1 Tim. 6:5). The categorical moral injunction to those who would be Christian teachers is that they "must gently instruct, in hope that God will grant repentance [to the opponent] leading to a knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim. 2:25). Therefore "the Lord's servant must not quarrel" (v. 24). Arguing for the Christian faith can be and must be done in a way consistent with Christian piety.
The appropriate response to critics of the faith, then, is that of reasoning with them, refuting objections, proving conclusions, offering arguments. Let us understand more precisely what this involves. The Greek word used for "proving" in Acts 9:22 is used for "drawing things together," as one does with inferences or demonstrating conclusions from premises.
In an argument the truth of one proposition is asserted on the basis of the truth of other propositions (premises). The conclusion is said to be inferred from -- to "follow upon" -- the premises offered. This is not the same as what is called a conditional statement, one in the "if...then" format. "If Popeye is a sailor, then he is a drunkard" is a conditional statement, but not an argument -- since no proposition is being asserted as following from the evidence provided in another proposition or set of propositions. But if someone claims that "Popeye is a drunkard because he is a sailor," then he is advancing an argument (a very poor one), basing a conclusion on other premises (in this case, one of those premises is suppressed or not mentioned).
It should be also noted here that an argument is not the same as an explanation. The presence of the word "because" in the preceding illustration can be misleading if we are not careful. The word "because" often asserts a causal connection between two things or events, rather than the giving of a reason (grounds for believing something). "The bread did not rise because Betty did not add the yeast" is a causal explanation, not an argument. The proposition following "because" does not aim to establish the truth of the proposition preceding it.
In apologetics our task is to analyze the arguments which are advanced by unbelievers against the truth of Christianity and to produce sound arguments in favor of it. This will call for an understanding of how the truth of a proposition can be based upon the truth of others -- an understanding of empirical relations (evidence) and conceptual relations (logic). We take our best sanctified ability to reason and debate, using the empirical and logical tools of reasoning which God has granted us, and offer justification for believing Christianity to be true and rejecting the conflicting perspective of unbelievers.
Identifying the True Defendant
The last remark highlights the fact that
apologetics is both defensive and offensive in nature; it not
only responds to criticism, it also presents its own challenge
to the thinking of unbelievers. Indeed, apologetics should bring
out the irony of the fact that those who demand a defense from
God are thereby the ones who in the end stand most in need of
philosophical and personal defense.
Unbelievers take their intellectual autonomy so much for granted that they find it hard to believe that they are in no position, epistemologically or morally, to be questioning God and His revealed word. This is well described by C. S. Lewis:
The trial may even end in God's acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God in the Dock.
God has in His holy word revealed the unholiness of this attitude. "You shall not make trial of Jehovah your God" (Deut. 6:16), as Moses decreed. When Satan tempted Jesus to do so -- to push God into offering proof of the veracity of His word (as quoted by Satan) -- Jesus rebuked Satan, "the accuser," with these very words from the Old Testament. He declared "It stands written that you shall not make trial of the Lord your God" (Matt. 4:7). It is not God whose integrity and veracity and knowledge is somehow suspect, really. It is that of those who would accuse Him and demand proof to satisfy their own way of thinking or living.
In answering the objections of unbelievers,
the apologist must not lose sight of that profound truth. It is
incumbent upon us to offer a reasoned defense to the unbeliever,
dealing with the criticisms he has in an honest and detailed way.
Christian apologetics is not served by obscurantism and generalities.
Yet at the same time our apologetical arguments must serve to
demonstrate that the unbeliever has no intellectual ground on
which to stand in opposing God's revelation. Our argumentation
should end up by showing that the unbeliever's presuppositions
(worldview) would consistently lead to foolishness and the destruction
of knowledge. In that case, and given the unbeliever's sinful
lifestyle, it is really the unbeliever -- and not God -- who is
after all "in the dock," both epistemologically and
 In popular English parlance this distinction is easily blurred, of course. We hear someone say that he "feels confident" that his team will win the World Series, and the same sentiment is expressed by him when he says he just "feels certain" they will win. Back
 The reader should not overlook the perversion of the English language which such an insidious idiom represents. Truth is not something which is person-relative. To say that some proposition is "true for me" is a misleading way of simply saying that I believe that proposition. Collapsing truth into belief has serious consequences for one's theory of knowledge. Back
 This should not be confused with saying that truth is restricted to the content of Christianity or the words of the Bible. There are many truths in addition to those found revealed in Scripture (e.g., the truth that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit). However there are no truths which conflict or compete with those found there. Back
 Notice that Paul's activity is the same whether his hearers already have a background in and respect for the word of God (Old Testament) or not. He "reasoned" with Jews in the synagogue and likewise with Greek philosophers on the street. Back
 This warning needs to be given since it seems that many believers who give themselves to apologetics are prone to a lack of gentleness in presenting their case. For the sake of their own sanctification and the honoring of the Lord whose word they defend, all apologists need to pray that their arguments not become contentious, that they not slip from defending their Lord into defending themselves. Humility is not incompatible with boldness. Back
 C. S.
Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics,
ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 244. Back
Return to the Protestant Apologetics and Theology page