Fast and Furious Fulmination

Scott Oliphint
Apologetics is a defense of the Christian faith; the word "apologetics" comes from a Greek word that means defense. In my last article, I mentioned that apologetics has been concerned, perhaps overly or exclusively so, to answer philosophical challenges with philosophical jargon. This emphasis has had two unwelcome consequences. It has led to a marginalizing of apologetics, such that its subject matter is reserved only for the specially-trained; apologetics is the domain of the egghead. It has also led to an over-intellectualizing such that the focus has been almost exclusively on the mind; it has little to do with matters of the heart, with the whole person. Its goal is simply to get us to believe propositions that we do not currently believe. Given these two consequences, it is not difficult to see why apologetics has had little relevance for the church. Like Mt. Ranier, it may be admired from afar, but is rarely taken on (and then only by the 'experts'), and is always cold, windy and barren at the top.

The challenges to the Christian faith, however, are much more diverse, more varied and often more subtle than those often lodged by philosophers. Current challenges to Christianity certainly include philosophical challenges, as well as things like the "new atheism," and those need to be addressed. But, perhaps more difficult, for example, because more subtle and less precise, are the challenges that come from (what a recent article called) the "apatheists," who seem currently to dominate the cultural climate. These are folks who claim they simply don't care about religion at all; their basic attitude to life is, "so what?" Their hero is Alfred E. Newman - "What? Me worry?" Why be concerned about such things as meaning, or the afterlife, or spirituality? Isn't life difficult enough without adding the difficulty of belief in something that is unseen and unprovable? Why in the world should I care about such things?

We would be kidding ourselves if we thought that attitudes like this (and this is just one example) do not challenge Christian belief -- perhaps even our own Christian belief. And wherever there is a challenge to Christianity, apologetics is meant to help address it. So, clearly, setting up base camp in the rarified air of philosophy will not do for apologetics; it must be able to address challenges from all comers and every quarter, and to respond in a way that both truthfully addresses the challenge and also offers the truth of the gospel. And this requires biblical revelation. So, why would anyone think that referencing the truth of biblical revelation in apologetics is out of bounds?

The primary reason, it seems, is that it is assumed that one can only debate or argue with someone on the basis of mutually accepted ideas. This makes some sense, of course. If I decide I want to argue that the moon is made of green cheese and my reason for believing that is that I saw it on the Oprah Winfrey Network, you would have good reason to doubt both the substance and source of my belief. You may cry foul because you refuse to accept as fact anything that is broadcast on OWN.

In discussions and debates about Christianity and its truth, however, the situation is in some significant ways quite unique. We will be discussing that uniqueness as we go along but at least one illustration of it may be helpful here. Whenever we determine to communicate the gospel to our unbelieving friends, the truth that we are communicating is decidedly not shared by those to whom we speak. Not only so, but the source of that truth (Scripture) is, by definition, rejected by them as well. 

On a practical note, this doesn't mean that we strive to communicate that truth in such a way that it is as foreign as possible to our unbelieving friends. Nor does it mean that our goal is to be as offensive and confrontational as we can possibly be. The gospel carries its own offense; it is already a fragrance of death to those who are perishing (2 Cor. 2:15), no need to add our own three acres of onions to it. Part of gospel wisdom (Col. 4:5-6) is that we should desire, not simply to tell the truth, but to communicate that truth in a way that might resonate with the listener. We want them to see, not simply that the gospel is true, which it is, but that it is the only truth that will meet them where they are. So, we should try to be persuasive in our communication.

But the fact remains that our communication of the truth of the gospel recognizes that there is no admitted mutual common ground of authority, nor is the content we communicate necessarily shared by the ones to whom we speak. So on what basis do we presume to communicate this truth?

This is the all-important question, for evangelism as well as for apologetics (and for preaching as well). When I ask, "on what basis," I am not asking simply "by what authority." We communicate the gospel because God has commanded it. But when I ask "on what basis" I am asking if there is some common foundation on which we and our unbelieving friends stand in order, really and truly, to effect communication between us. If in our gospel communication we do not share the same authority, the same foundation and the same content, how do we "connect" with our interlocutor? The answer is as profound as it is simple. It is so profound, in fact, that, with respect to apologetics, it has often been almost completely overlooked and ignored. The answer is that we -- all men and every person, always and everywhere, no matter the place or position -- live, move and exist in the God of Scripture, and we know that we do. This is our foundation, it is the real authority behind our apologetics and evangelism.

When we communicate to someone that they have sinned against a holy God and thus owe him repentance, because what we say resonates with what they already know to be the case, the truth of the matter pierces their soul like a laser; it causes their "innards" to register 9 on the Richter scale. We may not be able to detect this response; it may remain on the inside. But like a deadly undercurrent, while the surface may look calm and peaceful, underneath there is fast and furious fulmination. God's truth resonates with every person because God is already, always and everywhere known, and so are his requirements (see Rom 1:18-20, 32; 2:14-15). So, the common ground between the Christian and non-Christian is not, foundationally, what we agree together to affirm, nor is it some assumed common source like the "deliverances of reason" or "laws of thinking" (though on the surface these may look the same). The common ground that we all have is that all that we have, are and know comes from the same Triune God, and we know that it does.

One of the primary things to keep in mind, therefore, in apologetics (as in evangelism) is that God has made himself known in such a way that we, all of us together, know we are his creatures, that we owe him worship, that we have offended him, that our rebellion against him is a capital offense, and that our behavior flies in the face of his holy character.
If this is true, would it change the way we think about a Christian defense? More importantly, would it change how we prepare ourselves to give an answer (cf.1 Peter 3:15)?