The Importance of Philosophy and Apologetics in the Life of a Christian

Leave a Comment many reading this may be familiar, the term "apologetics" derives from the classical Greek word apologia.  In Greek law, the prosecution would give a kategoria, and the defense would respond with an apologia.  Today, apologetics can refer to the defense of any religion.

In the case of Christianity, followers are told in the Bible to give a defense of their faith (I Peter 3:15, Philippians 1:7).  Paul provides the prime example in the New Testament of giving a defense of Christianity.  As recorded in Acts chapters 17 through 19, Paul makes a custom of reasoning with both Jews and Gentiles in the cities he traveled through - in synagogues, marketplaces, and schools of thought.

Today, apologetics combines theology, natural theology, philosophy, and other elements in the defense of the Christian faith.  While apologetics is usually associated with reason and the classical arguments for God's existence, it can be extended to other fields such as archaeology and that hot-button issue: science.  It should come as no surprise that philosophy plays an important role in apologetics.  And with the recent renaissance in Christian philosophy, apologetics has enjoyed a similar boon in the last few decades.

There are at least three main purposes for apologetics in the church.  The most obvious is to defend the faith against the claims of its falsity, and to convince unbelievers that it is indeed true.  The second is to relieve doubt and increase confidence in the truth of Christianity for those who already believe.  Thirdly, it can often increase our wonder and admiration of our Creator.

These purposes are what give apologetics its importance.  To neglect apologetics is to breed contempt from those who do not believe, by being ignorant of their beliefs and ignorant of one's own position and its implications.  I remember in my undergraduate days the theism vs. atheism (and evolution vs. creation being tangled with the issue as usual) debate began to rage in the school's newspaper.  A Christian friend, who was studying philosophy at the school, and I had independently thought about writing the paper to weigh in on the issues but decided against it because the letters written by Christians before ours were so horrifically atrocious that the conversation on both sides quickly collapsed into utter nonsense.  It was truly discouraging.  We need to learn to give a better defense of our faith.

Further, a neglect of apologetics by the church at large leaves believers vulnerable to the intellectual objections raised by others, which can create serious doubt.  Despite reading much more in the way of popular-level apologetics than most Christians, I once went through a tremendously difficult time of doubt, brought on by questions of my own.  And it was very hard finding answers.  The resources are not readily available in the church, and one is often met with blank stares when bringing up difficult issues.  The great contributions of Alvin Plantinga, Keith Ward, Kenneth Kitchen, Luke Timothy Johnson, and others on which I came to rely during that time are - rather than being caught up in a vibrant culture of intellectual discussion and learning in the church - simply on the fringe of Christianity, garnering little attention.

Apologetics needn't be and shouldn't be something on the fringe of the church.  Studying it is a means of increasing our admiration for the Lord, of being fascinated by the intricacy of argument and of evidence, of encouraging each other, and of reaching out to those who do not believe.  Apologetics, like theology, is diverse and varied, covering centuries - even millenia - of Christian thought.  It is an avenue to converse with the great thinkers of the Christian tradition.

Once in a while I come across two claims that seek to undermine (intentionally or unintentionally) the importance of apologetics.  The first is that the church - by coming increasingly intellectual - will lose all vitality, and become emotionless and oppressive.  But this obviously sets up a false dichotomy.  God has not called us to choose between loving Him with our hearts or our minds, or to love him with our hearts over our minds, but to love Him "with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind."  It is not a matter of achieving a balance among these three; it must be 100% of our hearts, 100% of our souls, and 100% of our minds.  Certainly there is a danger in relying solely on one's intellect and to pride oneself in one's knowledge.  In the same way, relying on emotion in loving the Lord runs the risk of emotionalism, in which everything is assigned value simply based on feelings, and fideism takes the place of sound, God-given reason.

The second claim is that no one is ever really convinced that Christianity is true by argument.  Now, it is true that reason cannot bridge the gap alone - the work of the Holy Spirit is the only guarantee.  But it is silly to claim that argument has played no role in believers coming to faith.  C.S. Lewis' long discussions with J.R.R. Tolkien and reading of George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton's work were pivotal in his converting from atheism to Christianity.  This is just one example of many people who have come to Christianity at least in part because of their being convinced intellectually of its truth.

I end with the words of Edward Feser, who wandered into atheism for a long time before returning to his roots in the Catholic tradition.  He knocks out both of these objections at the tail of his own testimony.

I can already hear some readers protesting at what I have already said....  I'm talking about a certain kind of religious believer, the type who's always going on about how faith is really a matter of the heart rather than the head, that no one's ever been argued into religion, etc.  It will be said by such a believer that my change of view was too rationalistic, too cerebral, too bloodless, too focused on a theoretical knowledge of the God of philosophers rather than a personal response to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
But the dichotomy is a false one, and the implied conception of the relationship between faith and reason not only foolish but heterodox....  If you find yourself intellectually convinced that there is a divine Uncaused Cause who sustains the world and you in being at every instant, and don't find this conclusion extremely strange and moving, something that leads you to a kind of reverence, then I daresay you haven't understood it....
Speaking for myself, anyway, I can say this much.  When I was an undergrad I came across the saying that learning a little philosophy leads you away from God, but learning a lot of philosophy leads you back.  As a young man who learned a little philosophy, I scoffed.  But in later years and at least in my own case, I would come to see that it's true.
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