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Apologetics in the 21st Century - Part II

February 25, 2009
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The Postmodern Context and Apologetics
By John H. Armstrong, Guest Columnist

Christians have engaged in various types of apologetics down through the ages. The reason for this is rather simple-the questions that each age poses to the faith have required us to provide "a reason for the hope that we have within us." Doing apologetics is actually as basic as being obedient to Christ. If we love God with all our "heart, mind, soul and strength" we can never afford the luxury of avoiding the questions and issues of our own time. The church must engage in mission and mission requires us to know and understand our own age. This will lead us to engage in apologetics as a critical part of our mission.

Prior to the dramatic shift in thinking and reasoning that has taken place in recent decades Christians generally used apologetical arguments that addressed the scientific and philosophical questions of the time. This approach was sometimes fruitful. I employed this kind of approach in the 1960s when I was in college. It even produced some great popular volumes, like the best-selling book by Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. This approach also yielded some wonderful seminars and conferences where apologetics was understood as the primary way to provide rational, systematic answers to Enlightenment categories of thought. But late in the twentieth century this all began to change. Regardless of what we call this change, postmodernism or even new modernism, the game changed and it changed very significantly. Most evangelists, and academic missiologists, recognized this shift but many ordinary Christians slept through the cultural revolution we passed through. Now the results are so "in your face" that you surely can't miss it. My goal, in these articles and in leading ACT 3, is to awaken as many Christians as possible to the need for a new kind of apologetics.

The Impact of C. S. Lewis on My Thinking

Perhaps no single person helped me to grasp the role and importance of apologetics more than Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963), the famous author and professor of literature. Not only did Lewis write apologetics, in a popular and readable form, but he thought about the important questions apologists typically ask in ways that still make good sense even though the context has been altered dramatically. Lewis wasn't right about everything. Who is? His treatment of some textual issues, for example, is flawed. And his understanding of some doctrinal matters is weak, but these are generally found in areas that are not central to core orthodoxy. But Lewis always got the really important things right. On top of this Lewis' written work is filled with profound depth that continues to make his thoughts and expressions valuable even, or one could say especially, in postmodern times.

You see C. S. Lewis understood the mind of the non-Christian very clearly. And he also understood the way objections to the faith can be answered in simple but faithful ways. He was right about a great deal and thus he remains immensely suggestive for all modern apologists, professional or not. I continue to find him extremely helpful and thus an excellent resource that I return to time and time again. If you desire a basic education in apologetics I suggest there is no one better to help you than C.S. Lewis.

Apologetics as Martial Arts

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., professor of theology and culture at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, has written the very best modern treatment of apologetics I know: Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (New York: Oxford Press, 2002). In the Acknowledgments (pages ix-x) Stackhouse thanks Os Guinness for inspiring him to give up on the only apologetics that he knew as a young Christian. He calls this approach "apologetics as martial arts." That phrase helps me understand why I gave up on apologetics for some time. I hated this approach and saw it do untold damage in the real world of bearing faithful witness to non-Christians I actually knew. Now, in the postmodern context, I have returned to apologetics with renewed interest and a new approach.

Our world is changing and this change is now so rapid that most of us have a hard time keeping up with it, especially if we are over fifty years of age. This dizzying change requires us to understand that apologetics is much more than "defending the faith." It involves, now more than ever, "commending the faith." The apologetics needed today is not destructive, but constructive. We do not need to blast away the viewpoints of others. It has always been more important that we bless, not curse, and this is true now more than ever. In the past three centuries or more the church lost sight of this and apologetics was often a subset of intellectual martial arts.

What is needed today is to get behind the traditional arguments and proofs, many of which worked only to some extent several decades ago, to a fuller understanding of apologetics itself. This new approach will see apologetics as "developing one's authentic self so as to present one's faith as helpfully as possible to one's neighbor" (Humble Apologetics, xvii). In this approach knowing the content of arguments is important but not nearly as important as understanding the practices of Christian faith and the deep theology behind those practices. This may sound like a daunting task but I believe it is one that every Christian can engage in at an everyday level of understanding. It will take work but it can be done. I will try to show how in the coming weeks.

© 2009 by John H. Armstrong

John H. Armstrong is the founder and president of ACT 3, a ministry for the Advancement of the Christian Tradition in the third millennium. He is a former pastor and church-planter, of more than twenty years, the author/editor of eight books, and the author of hundreds of magazine, journal, and web-based articles. Besides his writing ministry Dr. Armstrong is an adjunct professor of evangelism and apologetics at Wheaton College Graduate School, teaches in various seminaries and colleges as a guest lecturer, and is a seminar and conference speaker throughout the United States and abroad.

Publisher's Note: The Center for Christ & Culture is committed to transmitting truth that challenges the spiritual apathy and cultural indifference of the church in our generation. In pursuit of this goal, we are pleased to feature other serious Christian thinkers, scholars and ministries that both challenge and equip the Bride of Christ to advance his kingdom.


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Response from : Greg Williams  

March 2, 2009 10:28 AM


Excellent and poignant article once again. I truly believe that the only paradigm that is really needed for apologetics is the one you "defined" in your last statements and that is that we need to know the core truths and how to live them out. This will work in any era because the Truth is always relevant even if not accepted as the "Law of the Harvest" always proves this out.

I see this as 2 things above all else: 1) The Lordship of Christ (which many churches speak/teach/model very little about) flowing from the free gift of salvation that leads to: 2) Our discipleship under Christ's Lordship and the working out of our salvation (sanctification). Every study, thought, decision, action and relationship is ultimately based on whoever our Lord is and while we may have many idols there is really only one Lord and one false lord (satan) who deceives us to thinking that we can be lord of our own lives, thus rejecting Christ - his age old deception.

It is from this paradigm that we can commend (and as necessary) defend the Truth, Hope and Faith that we have in Christ to give that answer with gentleness and respect.

Thanks for all you do and I covet your prayers as I've had a production company that wants me to do a series of teaching DVDs on this info. Thanks again and keep allowing the Lord to use you!

I'm currently working through a couple of books and am looking forward to starting on yours in the next week or two and would love to give you some great feedback as I'm sure I'm going to love it!

Have a great day in the Lord and God bless in Christ!

Greg Williams

Response from : Joseph Cote  

March 2, 2009 10:29 AM

Very good!
Some years ago, I attended a debate between the late Walter Martin and a "God is dead" professor from a local college. When the debate was over, many intense arguments erupted between supporters of the professor and Christians. It was very uncomfortable. Although "uncomfortable" is not necessarily bad, I felt strongly that nothing was accomplished and many went away wounded and frustrated.
Although Jesus was often bated by the then religious leaders, His focus was always on the Kingdom of God and its' infallibility. If our focus was on the same, we would walk, talk, act and be powerful in the spirit instead of trying to defend our little corner of the universe. Its' His universe and we are called to be His disciples. It is a simple calling but an impossible calling if we are not drawing our wisdom and strength from Him instead of our own thoughts and desires.
I look forward to all you have to say re this subject.

Response from : JerryR  

March 2, 2009 10:00 PM

I consider C.S. Lewis's challenge in "Mere Christianity", that we must either accept Christ's claim that he is the Son of God or dismiss him as a madman, to be one of his most insightful and prescient contributions to apologetics. With the recent proliferation of atheistic apologetics (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, etc.) whose express aim is to identify religion, especially the Christian religion, as a type of insanity, we need an apologetic that recognizes the force of this argument and can meet it head on.

This is not a new concept. It goes back as far as Plato's idea of "divine madness" in his dialogue with Phaedrus. Jesus and his disciples were accused by both friends and adversaries of being insane (Mark 3:21; John 10:20; Acts 26:24). Albert Schweitzer in his "Quest of the Historical Jesus" and "The Psychiatric Study of Jesus" made significant contributions to the development of this argument in recent times. But the best and most thorough analysis of this concept from both the religious and scientific perspective, I believe, is Anton Boisen's neglected work, "The Exploration of the Inner World" (University of Pa. Press, 1971). My personal Christian experience has been an echo and corroboration of Boisen's, and has been published as "The Gospel According to Jerry: Confessions of a Fool for Christ" available here:

Response from : chika erondu  

September 22, 2014 10:34 AM

This article has really been very helpful. Im doing a research on "The problems of apologetics in the 21st century and its effect on the churches in Nigeria" I would like as much material as I can get. I appreciate your assistance. Thanks.


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