Always Ready

Scott Oliphint
Editor's Note: We are excited to welcome Dr. K. Scott Oliphint to the reformation21 blog. Dr. Oliphint is the professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He is the author of numerous books, including his most recent title, God With Us (Crossway, 2011). 

One of the things I hope to do in these brief installments is to provide fodder for the mind and heart. Specifically, I hope to offer some food for thought in the area and discipline of biblical apologetics.

There are a number of ways to proffer advice in a short column like this. I could pick out an issue that bothers me and give you the benefit of my ever-increasing years of "wisdom" on how to be "against" that issue. Three interrelated problems come to mind, however, with that kind of approach. First, I'm fairly confident that the "wisdom" I think I have to offer is really nothing more than a short piece of autobiography. Even if you agree with it, it may simply be that we have mutual pet peeves and that you're glad that someone else sees it the way you do. Second, I'm even more confident that most who read this are not really all that interested in my life and problems, at least not in a way that would motivate them to read this. Third, I doubt that your understanding my own take on a particular issue is something that would help in the long run; it's not something that has any lasting value. So, in agreeing to write something here from time to time, I hope to stick to areas and issues that have a firmer grounding that my own idiosyncrasies and issues. In other words, if you come to this page to read about what I think about "x," you should probably click your "back" button, delete this page from your RSS feed and make sure this page is not bookmarked (I've now exhausted my web page vocabulary in one fell swoop).

My goal and method, then, will be to attempt to provide biblical and theological principles that are a part of, and can be applied to, a defense of Christianity. I recognize that such an approach may sound strange to some. A number of years ago a student reported to me that he had just returned from a conference entitled "Defending the Faith."  I asked him what the most significant thing about the conference was and I was surprised at his answer.  He said the thing that most caught his attention was one of the speaker's comments, which went something like this: "This year our topic is apologetics, so you really won't need to have your Bibles with you."  The comment itself, according to this student, was not meant to be humorous or flippant; it was simply a statement of fact.

Such a comment is understandable, though lamentable.  It is understandable given the way in which much, if not most, of apologetics is discussed.  For many, the context and content of apologetics has been first of all philosophical.  Much of apologetic discussions have taken place within philosophical walls, using philosophical arguments, attempting philosophical conclusions.  The language that has been used, the methods of argumentation, the topics chosen for debate, have all been molded and shaped primarily by a philosophical agenda and vocabulary.

In some ways, this makes sense.  There can be a kind of obvious overlap between apologetics and philosophy.  Because philosophy seeks to ask and answer the 'big' questions -- what is the universe like?, who am I?  how can I know anything? what is the nature of right and wrong? -- its concerns are similar to some of the main concerns of the Christian faith.  

Part of the problem, however, has been that philosophy's answers to these concerns have been, for the most part, antagonistic to Christian truth. So, in response, Christian apologists have attempted to give Christian answers to philosophical questions - answers that are often couched in terms that philosophers would use and understand.

Not only so, but some of the attacks that have been lodged against Christianity have come from philosophers. Because philosophy attempts to proceed and argue with sophisticated jargon and erudite elocution, the attacks lodged from philosophy against Christianity will take on that sophistication and erudition. In such cases, it is perfectly acceptable, perhaps even advisable, to respond on the same level. The problem has been that apologetics has become, generally speaking, an exclusively philosophical discipline.  So, it is not surprising that  this student would attend a conference on apologetics and never open his Bible.  What is needed in philosophy are strong reasoning skills, not biblical revelation (or so we're told).

But it is one thing to recognize that Christian apologetics must deal with philosophical attacks, and quite another thing to think that Christian apologetics only or primarily or supremely deals with philosophical attacks. I suspect that most Christians experience attacks on their faith that are much more mundane and banal -- the co-worker who thinks you're out of touch with all things modern, the acquaintance who thinks you odd for opposing gay marriage, the relative who quit calling your for lunch after you turned down his invitation to play golf one Sunday morning. Such things can apply sometimes enormous pressure on our faith; they can take the form of an attack. They can embarrass us, cause us to remain quiet about what we believe, make us avoid such situations altogether. At their worst, such responses to us can cause us to question our faith. What we need are biblical strongholds; we need to think about how to respond to these pressures. We need, as Scripture enjoins us, to be ready to give an answer.

But if apologetics is not meant to access the truth of biblical revelation, if it is merely a philosophical response to philosophical challenges, what use is it when other kinds of attacks come? Or, to put it another way, how can it be that we are meant to defend the truth of Christianity without that truth itself being an integral, central and controlling part of that defense? I hope we can think about that together over the next weeks and months.