Yesterday we proposed a preliminary definition of apologetics as the formulation of a persuasive case for Christianity as a whole, by a Christian who views their religion as a revelation from God. We closed by distinguishing between two key apologetical aims: persuading unbelievers and persuading believers. Let’s take a closer look at these two activities with a view to further refining our definition of apologetics.

Persuading Unbelievers

Apologetics involves “persuading unbelievers.” As noted yesterday, at its heart, apologetics is all about persuasion. It’s not a mere formulation of Christian doctrine, a bare statement of theological facts, but an attempt to persuade unbelievers to embrace the Christian religion. Christian apologetics is aimed at changing unbelieving minds and hearts with various arguments that may be placed in three main categories.

First, there are arguments that defend the Christian faith. These include those that answer and defeat arguments against Christianity, as well as those that refute false accusations, stereotypes, and ideas of Christianity. Concerning this approach, J. Gresham Machen noted:

God usually exerts power [for conversion] in connection with certain prior conditions of the human mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favorable conditions for the reception of the gospel. False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel.[1]

Second, there are arguments that commend Christianity, giving positive reasons to embrace the Christian faith. These more positive and commendatory arguments include arguments and evidences for the Christian faith and also the highlighting of the benefits and advantages of Christianity.

Douglas Groothuis asserts that “more time will be spent on the positive case for Christianity than on the negative case against other worldviews. Indeed, giving a strong positive case for a Christian worldview will automatically eliminate other views.”[2]

Third, there are arguments that attack non-Christian religions, aiming to dis-prove and discredit them.

Persuading Believers

In addition to persuading unbelievers, Avery Dulles* said that apologetics may also involve “helping believers to overcome their doubts and hesitations.” So, whether apologies are addressed to Christians or non-Christians, the common features in both apologetic activities are unbelief and persuasion.

That’s consistent with Dr. John Frame’s definition of apologetics as “the application of theology to unbelief.” The aim of the persuasion, of the application of theology, is to remove unbelief in order to win the unbeliever for the Christian faith or to establish the Christian more firmly in the Christian faith.

After surveying the New Testament books, Dulles found this double purpose to some degree in most of them and concluded:

While none of the NT writings is directly and professedly apologetical, nearly all of them contain reflections of the Church’s efforts to exhibit the credibility of its message and to answer the obvious objections that would have arisen in the minds of adversaries, prospective converts, and candid believers. Parts of the NT – such as the major Pauline letters, Hebrews, the four Gospels, and Acts – reveal an apologetical preoccupation in the minds of the authors themselves. (19)

These double aims of persuading both unbelievers and believers have been recognized not only in the Bible, as noted above, but also throughout church history. For example, Dulles cites Cyprian’s Testimonies as an apologetic example of persuading Christians, as “The treatise was evidently written more to support Christians in their encounters with Jews than with the direct aim of converting the latter.” (74)

When Christianity was ridiculed as absurd in Anselm’s time, Anselm’s theological reasonings were written “partly to equip believers to deal with unbelievers” which Dulles describes as a “properly apologetic” benefit by equipping believers with reasons for their hope, and, “insofar as they were based on cogent reasons, could be meaningful to those who lacked faith” but also help believers discern the rationality of their faith. (79-80)

As Dulles explained in his preface to A History of Apologetics, although Christian apologists aimed “to win converts from other groups” their focus increasingly shifted towards Christians and the need for an inner apologetic:

Finally, apologists came to recognize that every Christian harbors within himself a secret infidel. At this point apologetics became, to some extent, a dialogue between the believer and the unbeliever in the heart of the Christian himself. In speaking to his unregenerate self the apologist assumed – quite correctly – that he would best be able to reach others similarly situated. (xvi)

So much did the focus of apologetics shift over the years, from the unbeliever to the believer, that the 18-19th century philosopher, Friedrich Schleiermacher eventually went so far as to say that apologetics was “not to bring others into the community – a task pertaining rather to ‘practical theology’ – but rather to communicate to the faithful a ‘conviction of the truth of the mode of faith’ propagated in the Church community in such manner that it becomes intellectually acceptable.”[3]

This is imbalanced compared to most definitions of apologetics, but confirms the point of this survey that, as Groothuis puts it, “apologetics is offered not only in response to the doubts and denials of non-Christians. It also fortifies believers in their faith, whether they are wrestling with doubts and questions or simply seeking a deeper grounding for their biblical beliefs.”[4]

Based upon this brief historical survey, any comprehensive definition of Christian apologetics must include two elements: persuasion and a focus on unbelief. A definition that meets such criteria would be: Christian apologetics uses arguments that defend and commend the Christian faith, and that critique non-Christian religions and worldviews, in order to persuade non-Christians to accept the Christian faith or to persuade Christians to greater faith.

[1]. Gresham Machen and John W. Robbins, “Christianity and Culture,” Education, Christianity, and the State, Trinity Paper no. 19 (Jefferson, Md: Trinity Foundation, 1987), 51.

[2]. Douglas R. Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2011), 59.

[3]. Schleiermacher, Brief Outline, 31.

[4]. Groothuis, 25.

* See yesterday’s post for comments on Avery Dulles. All page numbers refer to his book A History of Apologetics.

  • Greg Meece

    Speaking as a layman, the study of apologetics was the doorway to systematic theology. Ultimately, this lead me to have a Reformed understanding of soteriology. I am still very “connected” with apologetic study, various ministries specializing in it, and its practical application. As a believer, it has been an encouraging tool for both my internal understanding of the faith, as well as an equipping discipline that has made sharing the faith with others much more natural and effective than it ever was before.

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