A Little Primer on Humble Apologetics

In the forward to Dr. Richard Pratt's first book, Every Thought Captive, John Frame asserts that Reformed people are often strong in setting forth Biblical theories for apologetics but are "generally weak in training one another to do apologetics." Frame is right I believe, and though Dr. Pratt's work and others like it have contributed much in helping fill that void, a new training manual is needed, a work that offers a fresh perspective on how the practice of apologetics might help answer the objections raised by many in our world today.

A Little Primer on Humble Apologetics is a short (112 pages), six-chaptered treatment of this important discipline from a master in the field. Sire has spent most of his life engaging students and faculty on college campuses throughout the U.S. and Europe about the Faith, listening to their concerns and proposing answers to their questions. He has written extensively on the subject of worldviews, most famously in The Universe Next Door--a book that catalogs nine basic systems of thought which we will inevitably encounter in our conversations with others.

In this latest release, Sire is less concerned about the philosophical underpinnings imbedded in certain approaches to apologetics, or the current debates regarding which approach to apologetics is best. Rather, Sire focuses on defining apologetics at its most basic level, in terms that are thoroughly Biblical, and in providing guidance to us as we attempt to carry out this important Christian duty.

First, and most importantly, Sire understands that the central concern of apologetics is not whether an approach works, but whether it is faithful in proclaiming Christ and him crucified. According to Sire, this "proclaiming" is not strictly bound to words but is the coalescing of our lives and words into verbal-visual testimonies for Christ. We are, in the classic sense of the word, witnesses; we want others to hear Christ from us and see Christ in us. This is the most crucial factor in apologetics for Sire, so much so that he contends that when either of these two aspects is separated from the other, we cast doubt on the credibility of Christ and His message (p.13-26).

Secondly, Sire argues that any defense of the faith must be sensitive to context. Apologetics is not a formula or a mantra but a way of living. "Giving a defense" should vary according to the audience and situation, for this is one of the ways we express the love of Christ to those with whom we share the gospel. However, this is not to be understood as a license to say or do anything you wish--as if apologetics had no substance or boundary. Rather, every context will require grounding in the Bible, reasoned argumentation, and rhetorical prowess. Our goal, Sire advances, should be that each of these aspects work together to support an approach to apologetics that upholds and enhances the veracity of the gospel (p.55-70).

Thirdly, because Sire believes apologists often overstate their case, he attempts to clear the field of false assumptions and to speak honestly about the real limits of the discipline. Apologists can't convince unbelievers to put their faith in Christ. Even the so-called "full-proof arguments" can't make someone believe. These are mere resources that God has given us to employ when needed, to assist unbelievers in their struggle for faith in Christ.

But when push comes to shove, we are forced to admit that there is simply no way to know what will persuade someone of the truth of gospel; we can't even predict what course to faith they might take.
For some, a rational argument will do it. For others, it will be a life lived faithfully before them. For most, it will be a combination of the two. This should teach us, Sire argues, that humility is the primary qualification of the apologist; it is central to his work. We cannot rely upon our cleverness or even the brilliance of our arguments, for we don't possess the power to change people. Only God can do that.

Because of this, Sire sets forth prayer as our greatest ally in apologetics, for it is on our knees that we face our inability head on and learn to trust in the grace of God, the only means through which spiritual dead men are made "new creatures in Christ" (II Cor.5:17). In whatever we say or do as humble apologists, we trust the Holy Spirit to will and to do His good pleasure. Our hope and responsibility is to be fit instruments in His work (p.52).

Approaching the end of the book, Sire spends a chapter outlining a few arguments that he believes aid the apologist in this humble endeavor. These arguments are not given detailed treatment (Sire is quick to note that such a work would be a "very large volume indeed") but are intended as introductory answers to the kind of objections we'll face when speaking to unbelievers. Bringing years of experience to bear, Sire provides many helpful hints for the conversations we engage in with unbelievers, and he points us to the plethora of good books whose purpose is to provide more comprehensive answers to complicated questions (p.73-81).

Sire's latest work is a welcomed addition to the many books on apologetics that line my shelves. I am thankful for the blessing of a new, simply stated introduction to the field, and I trust many, both expert and amateur, will be refreshed by its clarity, simplicity, and honesty.

James Sire / Illinois: IVP, 2006   
Review by Nate Shurden, Assistant to the Editorial Director