Thursday, July 11, 2013

Do You Prioritize Apologetics Over Theology?

When I first came to believe the truth of the Christian faith, I did so - in large part - because of books like Hugh Ross' The Creator and the Cosmos and Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ. This was over a decade ago, when I was a high schooler. I was a 17 year old kid, just learning that there even was a such thing as "apologetics" - and that can be a dangerous thing.

Now, I didn't become a Christian because of those books. I became a Christian when God brought me to a realization (by reading Paul's Letter to the Romans) of my sinfulness, of my need of a redeemer, and of my need to repent. It's important to distinguish between winning an argument and winning a soul.

My theology in the years following my conversion was not shaped - first and foremost - by attention to the Word of God, I freely confess it! Rather, I had enamored myself with these apologists whom I had been first exposed to, and who had first shown me the reasonableness of the Christian faith. The debates of William Lane Craig, the near death experience talks given by J.P. Moreland, even books like Norm Geisler's Chosen But Free all made an early impact on me because I had - from the beginning - prioritized apologetic thinking over theological thinking. You might even say that all of those things appealed to me because I still came at my theology thinking like an unsaved person, peeking in and figuring things out from the perspective of an outsider trying to "solve" the problems of God and eternity. Of course, I thought I could find ways to locate scraps of these innovative doctrines (arminianism, molinism, etc.) in Scripture later on down the road, if I tried hard enough. I don't mean this as a slander against those men, but rather as a self-critical assessment of how I came at theology.

This last week, Kurt Jaros and Scott Oliphint had an interesting exchange on the Unbelievable radio program. After listening to this program, as a former classical apologetics junkie, all I could do was reflect on what a worldly approach I used to take to thinking about the doctrine of God. If you prioritize apologetics over theology, then your theology will be shaped by your ability to defend your views. You may even hold to certain doctrines because it is easier to defend against unregenerate debate opponents rather than because you found them in the Scriptures. This is absolutely upside down from the way it should be. Herman Bavinck says this better than I could ever possibly try in the prolegomena of his Reformed Dogmatics.

As Bavinck explains it, "Placing apologetics at the head of all the other theological explicable only from the fact that these theologians no longer recognize theology's own principles and [are] forced to look elsewhere for a foundation on which the building of theology [can] rest" (1:55-56). And here Bavinck exposes the reality that theology, on its own, is an inadequate starting point for many theologians (but it shouldn't be!). In Bavinck's day it was men like Schliemacher who placed apologetics prior to theology. In our own day, men like William Lane Craig (and his young disciples) do the same. This manifests itself, of course, in grossly unbiblical theological aberrations such as Craig's Molinism. But this is only a manifestation of theological method, not the real problem. The problem is the core of how one does theology. What is one's beginning source for what we know about God? Is it reason, unaided by revelation?

Bavinck goes on: "If...theology is deduced from its own source, i.e., from revelation, it has its own certainty and does not need corroboration of philosophical reasoning." And this is a big problem I saw in Jaros' own approach on Unbelievable. Jaros has what you might call an "unbeliever-friendly" apologetic method. Jaros might be happy with that assessment, but what it means is that his apologetics and philosophy must come first in priority. If revelation came first in priority, his approach would no longer be appealing to unbelievers, because it would be built upon God's self-revelation.

This is a problem, however: "Apologetics cannot and may not precede dogmatics but presupposes dogma and now gets the modest but still splendid task of maintaining and defending this dogma against all opposition." The person who prioritizes apologetics over theology might respond by saying that the person who puts theology first loses the ability to use arguments from nature or history in his defense of the faith (what Bavinck refers to as "dogma"). But Bavinck also has a response to this line of thinking:
[This defense of] the entire content of revelation and of Christianity as a whole, is possible for the reason that nature and grace, creation and redemption, coming as they do from one and the same God, are not and cannot be in conflict. Only sin, which consists not only in a perverse disposition of the heart but also in the darkening of the mind, has brought opposition and conflict between the two (p. 56)
I would encourage up and coming apologists/theologians to flip their priorities. In order to defend the faith you must first have a faith to defend. If your defense of the faith involves principally abandoning the very fabric of reality to prove its truthfulness, something at the core of your approach is desperately wrong, indeed.


  1. Great post Adam! This is exactly my story as well. Only differences were age (post college for me) and what I was reading when I first realized my need (explanation of the parable of the Prodigal Son in Philip Yancey's "What's So Amazing About Grace?"). Other than that I could have written the same article (albeit not as well).

  2. Outstanding! Theology and apologetics are inseparable. One's apologetic must necessarily be an extension of one's theology, or there is serious trouble somewhere.

    Thanks for this post and encouragement, Adam!

  3. “Apologetics is the fruit, never the root, of faith.” - Herman Bavinck (The Certainty of Faith) as quoted in this great article:

  4. Appreciate this call to the apologists (non-Presuppositionalists variety) to re-prioritize their commitments


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