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The Apostle Peter commanded the early church and us today as well “in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). Jude likewise told his hearers to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). But, there is much debate concerning how the church should carry out the apologetic task. Alister McGrath in an article titled “Apologetics to the Romans” argues that there is a dominant apologetic methodology present in the early church’s engagement and interaction with the Roman authorities. Here is an abstract I wrote summarizing his article:
Just as the first Christian apologists in the early church used a pragmatic approach, the church today should engage their culture in a similar manner. As the early church engaged Roman authorities, there were two evident themes displayed. First, they argued that Christianity was not doing anything wicked, and second, they defended Christianity as a group within Judaism. The Roman authorities however were suspicious of Christianity for two main reasons.
First, The Roman authorities’ main suspicion of Christianity in the early church was due to imperial idolatry. Due to this cultic worship of the emperor dominating the Roman Empire at the time when Christianity was gaining influence, a confrontation was bound to ensue. As recorded by Pliny the Younger around A.D. 112, Christians refused to worship the emperor due to their sole devotion to Jesus Christ as evidenced by their consistent participation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. They worshipped Christ as Lord alone.
Second, the early Christian apologists were very concerned with revealing how the church was related to Israel. Judaism was a religion permitted by the Romans; and therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the early Christian apologists were encouraging the Romans to permit Christianity as well. The Jews however who violently opposed Christianity petitioned the Romans to expel Christians on several occasions. Interestingly, in Acts 17 Paul and Silas were called Jews in Philippi, possibly an anti-Semitic remark, instead of a direct statement against Christianity; which further proves that some Romans understood Christianity to be a group within Judaism.
Paul’s most important speech concerning the Roman authorities takes place in Acts 24-26. Paul lays out his apologetic defense in the form of forensic speeches that were popular in Roman judicial proceedings at that time. Paul defended himself and Christianity by clearing up distorted views and appealing to Roman rules of evidence; further proof that pragmatism informed his apologetic method.
Just like the Roman authorities, some today reject Christianity due to misconceptions, as evidenced by church history. Augustine of Hippo for example was a gifted orator that became involved with Manichaeism, which taught that the God of the Old Testament was evil and different from the God of the New Testament. In his pursuit of excellent oration, he frequently listened to Ambrose, a Christian bishop who was an excellent orator himself. Although Augustine had no interest in the content of Ambrose’s sermons, he found that the truth entered his mind and harnessed his heart nonetheless. Augustine’s misconceptions about Christianity were corrected, and so began his long journey into repentance and faith in Christ and service to the God of the Bible.
As Christian apologists today seek to defend the faith, they will need to answer firmly yet tactfully various misconceptions that their hearers have about Christianity. Just as Paul used the rules of engagement in the Roman legal system, Christians too must make use of various truths present in this world for the purpose of pragmatic engagement. Some arguments will carry weight with one group, while “discrediting” Christianity with another group. Apologists must practice pragmatic discernment as they evangelize their cultures.
In conclusion, the examples found in the book of Acts discussed above provide some general apologetic principles. First, apologist-evangelists must know their hearers (Acts 2, 17, 24, 26). Second, apologist-evangelists must recognize who or what are their idols. Finally, apologist-evangelists should pragmatically determine and use types of argumentation that will carry weight with their hearers.
I think McGrath is largely correct in his assumption, namely, that the early church’s apologetic method was pragmatic in nature. In other words, your method must vary depending on who you are talking with. I agree with McGrath’s final four points concerning methodology; however, concerning content, I believe presuppositional apologetics to be the final goal of defending the faith. There may be times however that using evidences to begin the conversation are enough to draw a sinner to repentance and faith (used by the Holy Spirit of course); however, the goal should be to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). If our hearers do not have the same presuppositions that Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1 argue, then they are not “taking every thought captive to obey Christ,” and we are not “destroying arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God.” Our apologetics should begin with pragmatism, but then should end with destroying the anti-God presuppositions of our hearers. Of course, salvation will change their presuppositional foundations instantaneously, but a thorough understanding will be brought about with discipleship. Others however will need more convincing, and in the words of Cornelius Van Til, we must bring the atom bomb (presuppositional apologetics/transcendental argument) out of our basement and drop it on top of them.
What are your thoughts?
Source: McGrath, Alister E. “Apologetics to the Romans.” Bibliotheca Sarca 155 (October – December 1993): 387-393.