Followers of Jesus Christ have been ridiculed, harrassed, persecuted, and scorned since the days of the original apostles of Jesus. Today Christianity is under attack from both secular and religious groups. Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great, are well known and outspoken in their animosity toward religion in general and Christianity in particular. But Dawkins and Hitchens are not alone in their criticism. Though they eschew all religion, these two authors and atheists ironically share a common bond with Islam in it's blatant opposition to every tenet of the Christian faith.
How are Christians to respond to challenges from both the irreligious and those of other religious persuasions? We are to engage in apologetics and polemics.
What exactly is apologetics? How does it apply to Christian belief and practice?
Apologetics comes from Greek απολογíα (apologia) which means, "to make a verbal defense." It is used in the sense of a legal setting, where a defendant is giving a defense for his belief of the validity of a certain truth claim. In other words, apologetics is giving a reasonable, rational defense, supported by evidence, for why a belief you claim to be true is actually true.
We see several examples of apologetics in action in the New Testament.
- Acts 22:1 -- "Brethren and fathers, hear my defense before you now."
- Acts 25:16 -- To them I answered, "It is not the custom of the Romans to deliver any man to destruction before the accused meets the accusers face to face, and has opportunity to answer for himself concerning the charge against him.'
- Philippians 1:7 -- just as it is right for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart, inasmuch as both in my chains and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers with me of grace.
Apologetics is used quite often as a form of pre-evangelism, to provide answers to valid questions a seeker might have concerning the truth of Christianity. It is used to remove roadblocks in the way of someone coming to a saving faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ.
The keynote verse from the Bible generally used to define apologetics is 1 Peter 3:15-16, "but 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, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame." The word translated 'make a defense' is apologia.
Apologetics is not arguing in the sense of engaging in a heated verbal dispute or quarrel with someone else. It is not arguing simply for the sake of winning an argument. Nor is it arguing people into the Kingdom of God.
So when we engage in a conversation with another to defend the belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus or in the authority of the Bible as the inspired Word of God, we are engaging in apologetics.
Apologetics and polemics are opposites of one another -- two sides of the same coin. Whereas apologetics is to clarify truth claims one holds to be true, polemics is used to argue against the truth claims of another. It is to give a reasonable, rational defense of why you believe ideas held by others as true are in fact not true. It is to tear down the false truth claims of someone or something else.
The keynote verses from the Bible used to define the concept of polemics is 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, "For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ." Christians are to destroy false arguments, so-called knowledge that is raised against the knowledge of God. We are to bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. Tearing down false knowledge and false arguments is polemics.
So when I engage in a conversation with an atheist who provides evidence for his belief that God does not exist, and I refute his argument with evidence to the contrary, I am engaging in polemics. When I have a conversation with a Muslim who is attempting to convince me that the Qur'an is the diivne word of God and I present evidence to refute this claim, I am engaging in polemics.
Is apologetics and polemics biblical?
Certain groups and individuals within Christianity believe we should never engage in either apologetics or polemics. The idea is that we, as Christians, are simply commanded to 'make disciples' (Matthew 28:19) by presenting the simple gospel and discipling those who profess faith in Christ. Yet as I have just shown, there is biblical warrant for both apologetics and polemics. Making disciples involves more than just preaching the gospel. Others often have legitimate concerns or questions about Christianity that must be answered, with clear and convincing evidence (apologetics) before a saving faith can be professed. Likewise, the truth claims of any false religion must be exposed. Most truth claims of false religions stand in opposition to Christianity and before an adherent of another religion can accept the truth of Christianity, their own religious beliefs must be shown as false.