If Christians truly believe that Jesus is Lord, then they will make the attempt to win converts for him in every way that is humanly possible, not just in ways that exclude verbal persuasion. Arguments can, and must, be given for faith.
Today, apologetics has a questionable reputation among Catholic scholars, lay persons, and clergymen. So strong is this suspicion within the Church that even outsiders begin to question whether “arguments for faith” are constitutive of authentic Christian discipleship. Because Christianity is a matter of faith, they say, apologetics must be taken as a curious example of modern day fundamentalism. As Paul Griffiths observes: “‘Apologetics’ has itself become a term laden with negative connotations: to be an apologist for the truth of one religious claim, or set of claims, over against another is, in certain circles, seen as not far short of being a racist. And the term has passed into popular currency, to the extent that it has, as a simple label for argument in the service of a predetermined orthodoxy, arguments concerned not to demonstrate but to convince, and, if conviction should fail, to browbeat into submission.” 1 Surely the “fighting words” of the apologist seem to be out of touch with the Second Vatican Council’s inclusive, dialogical stance with the world.
It is not difficult to see how the anti-apologetical mindset plays itself out in a myriad of ways. Cheap slogans such as: “Only the Holy Spirit can draw unbelievers to faith, not human arguments!” are well known in Catholic circles. Other half-truths, such as “Lead by example and not words!” are often taken in a way that undercuts the apologetic mandate (cf. 1 Pt3:15). What enthusiastic Catholic hasn’t felt awkward in the company of lukewarm believers (let alone in the presence of unbelievers), knowing that our culture has relegated religious expression to Sunday worship? And even when we go to Church, who hasn’t seen the lack of reverence in outward gestures that are supposed to be indicative of what’s going on in Catholic hearts?
Yet, another problem for apologetics is that of postmodernism. 2 After apologists have passionately stuck their finger in the sand and marked out the straight, uncompromising line of truth, our postmodern friend yawns and walks away, unconvinced that anyone could know the truth for sure. “Hey, whatever works for you!” they say. The issue of perspectivalism sometimes leaves evangelists reeling and hesitant to swish their spiritual swords in the dialogue with potential converts lest they lose a friend or even family member “to the other side of the fence.”
And if all this weren’t enough, we must also face the problem of practicality. Apologetics is often seen by Catholics as something for intellectuals, not ordinary persons in the pew, who want something that applies to their lives. This essay is an apologetic for the pastor’s role as an apologist. It also might be considered a plea for ministers to become much more apologetical. Before we embark on the relevance of apologetics for priests, deacons, and everyone else involved in ministry, it would be profitable for us to recount some of the more positive reasons for anyone to engage in apologetics in the first place.
(1) Scripture commands that Christians do apologetics. In Jude 3, Christians are told to “contend for the faith.” In Colossians 4:5, 6, Paul warns the Church: “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you know how you should respond to each one.” Paul saw his own role as that of an apologist. In Philippians 1:16, he wrote, “I am here for the defense of the Gospel.” “Consequently,” says Walter Kasper, “faith, as understood in the Bible, is not a blind venture, not an irrational feeling, not an uncalculated option, and certainly not a sacrificium intellectus (sacrifice of the intellect). Rather, faith can and must give a rational account of itself.” 3 In 1 Peter 3:15, it says we are to always be ready to give a reason for our hope. Notice that the passage says that we are to always be ready to give a reason for our faith, not just sometimes.
Recalling the teaching of Saint Paul (cf. Rom 1:19-20), the First Vatican Council pointed to the existence of truths which are naturally, and, thus, philosophically, knowable; and an acceptance of God’s Revelation necessarily presupposes knowledge of these truths. In studying Revelation and its credibility, as well as the corresponding act of faith, fundamental theology should show how, in the light of the knowledge conferred by faith, there emerge certain truths which reason, from its own independent enquiry, already provides. Revelation endows these truths with their fullest meaning, directing them towards the richness of the revealed mystery in which they find their ultimate purpose. Consider, for example, the natural knowledge of God, the possibility of distinguishing divine Revelation from other phenomena or the recognition of its credibility, the capacity of human language to speak in a true and meaningful way even of things which transcend all human experience. From all these truths, the mind is led to acknowledge the existence of a truly propaedeutic path to faith, one that can lead to the acceptance of Revelation without in any way compromising the principles and autonomy of the mind itself. 5
An apologetical mind is one that coincides with a heart for Christ. Hiding the truth is not a sign of love, but of fear. If Christians truly believe that Jesus is Lord, then they will make the attempt to win converts for him in every way that is humanly possible, not just in ways that exclude verbal persuasion. Arguments can, and must, be given for faith. Being argumentative is an abuse of apologetics and should be avoided. Arguments, moreover, are not exclusively directed to unbelievers, but are designed to motivate believers. In this way, apologetics is needed for believers to become confident about what they believe in order to explain and defend the Catholic faith with others.
(3) Common sense suggests that apologetics is needed. Unlike mere animals, God created human beings with the ability to reason. God, therefore, expects us to use reason. It also helps people to determine what is true, and how to justify one’s beliefs. Without reason, there is no justification for holding to any one set of certain beliefs over and against another set of beliefs. Socrates once said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The same goes for Christian faith: the unexamined faith is not worth believing. Since God did not create anyone without a mind, it is normal for all people to have questions and even objections to the truth.
(4) Apologetics helps inculturate the Gospel. Christians must be able to understand the wider cultural context where they live in order for evangelization to take place. The intellectual zeitgeist of the West can be traced back to the secular philosophies of the Enlightenment. The hallmark of this movement was to free humanity from the “shackles of organized religion” (especially Catholic Christianity). The impact of this movement is still felt in the academy today. The upshot of these philosophies is that faith is equivalent to an opinion or personal taste; only that which is observable is worthy of public discussion and debate. Kasper elaborates on the cultural malaise, offering a solution in the process: “Especially in a situation like ours today, when everything depends on the Christian faith making the transition to new cultural horizons and a new epoch, there can be no question of the Christian retreating into the realm of private experience. Today, as hardly ever before in the history of Christianity, it is essential that the Christian faith emphasize its reasonableness which is accessible to all human beings.” 6 If the very concept of truth has come under fire in our culture, then it only makes sense to explain and defend the notion of truth before one can explain what is true.
(5) The results of apologetics confirm its validity. Sometimes Christians and unbelievers complain that apologetics never accompanies conversions to Christ. But this is a serious misreading of Christian history. After trying to debunk the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, Frank Morrison became a Catholic after recognizing the historical evidence for the resurrection. 7 C.S. Lewis came to believe in Christ under the influence of apologetics. In fact, Lewis was convinced that many of the people that he knew in England at the time, who believed in God, did so because of arguments for God’s existence: “nearly everyone I know who has embraced Christianity in adult life has been influenced by what seemed to him to be at least a probable argument for Theism.” 8 Augustine embraced Catholicism after hearing a thoughtful Catholic debate with a Manichean. 9 The former atheist, Antony Flew, recently became a philosophical theist because of newer arguments for God’s existence. 10 Although many more examples could be given, the point is that the defense of the faith has accompanied conversions in the past.
The objection, “only the Holy Spirit brings persons to Christ, not human arguments,” is shortsighted at best, and mistaken at worst. It limits what a perfect God can do. It is not the Holy Spirit or human reason. Rather, it is the Holy Spirit using persons who use good arguments when witnessing to outsiders. When believers engage in the apologetic task, it creates an atmosphere that makes Christian belief reasonable for outsiders. Many times people say that they’ve engaged in apologetics but are still ineffective in their witness. However, what these persons tend to overlook is that conversions are often gradual and take time (i.e., we plant seeds; God makes them grow). We simply do not know how or when God will use the things we say in our apologetic witness. Perhaps, the seed will sprout a few days, or even years, down the road. Conversely, everyone who entrusts themselves in faith to Christ has a reason for becoming Catholic. Not having a reason for faith is equivalent to saying that one has faith by accident. So the question is not whether there are reasons for faith, but what kind of reasons we do have.
No matter what the circumstances, Christians must never make it their goal to win arguments with their dialogue partner. No one in the discussion must ever be forced into a win-lose situation. Instead, the apologist must develop the skill of making the Christian faith attractive, being respectful to their dialogue partner in the process. Ideas need to be presented and challenged, not persons as such. 11 One of the most basic components of apologetic work is to love and care for our partners.This would not mean that Christians should refuse to make hard truth claims. Rather, the focus must remain on how our defense is made. As John Paul II argued in Redemptoris Missio, the Church always proposes, she never imposes anything on anyone. 12
And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.
Whether it is the past or the future, the message of the cross and resurrection will always be countercultural, demanding a radical change of lifestyle. And this will be uncomfortable at times. As Avery Dulles explains, in defense of apologetics: “If they (accusations made against the validity of apologetics) come from a mentality that … shrinks from any kind of confrontation, the criticisms should probably be discounted. Apologetics has to be somewhat controversial; it should forthrightly defend the settled teaching of the Church.” 14 Not only should we always be ready to give a reason for our hope, we should also be ready for rejection.
(6) A blind faith can lead to self-destruction; a reasoned faith can lead to sanctity. Atheist Richard Dawkins has noted that faith “leads people to believe in whatever it is so strongly that in extreme cases they are prepared to kill and die for it without the need for further justification.” 15 Dawkins is partially correct: blind faith can lead one down the path of violence. But a healthy faith will seek to understand the object in which his/her faith is placed. Indeed, healthy faith does not forget to reason. When Christians limit the intellectual engagement of faith, it can literally steer them down the path of extreme forms of violence. Healthy Catholic faith, however, influences all of human nature, including the mind. It begins with the conviction of the mind and culminates in the eventual consent of the will. Faith that is based on subjective religious experience alone—at the expense of reason—leads one to embrace heresy. At other times, it leads one to be violent against others. Reason reinforces faith and makes it come alive; fideism ruins the very impetus for faith itself.
Apologists and Ministry
Apologetics and ministry are on two different sides of the same evangelical coin. Thus, there should be different ways in which this relationship works itself out. Let us now turn to some of these reasons.
(1) Apologetics can enhance the pastor’s awareness and confidence to proclaim Christ. Because the truth element of theology tends to be overlooked nowadays, it is more important than ever to focus on the truth of Catholic faith. Indeed, the Church is the very place of truth. In this respect, apologetics safeguards believers from becoming indifferent about discipleship. As Avery Dulles puts it: “If we do not consider that it is important for others to hear the Christian proclamation, we inevitably begin to question its importance for ourselves.” 16
(2) Apologetics plays an important role in facilitating the process of conversion—one of the primary tasks of the pastor. Authentic discipleship begins with an interior conversion, not with externals. One of the values of engaging in the apologetic task is that it deepens and enriches an understanding of the truth. Since authentic parish unity is impossible to achieve without interior conversion, apologetics helps to facilitate the process of the Church becoming dynamic, evangelical, and one. As Christians become more and more confident that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, they inevitably become who they were meant to be in Christ.
(3) A ministry that neglects apologetics can destroy the driving impetus underlying missions. If dialogue is understood in the erroneous sense that faith in Jesus is unnecessary or unimportant, and that Christians only have to dialogue to understand one another for mere mutual enrichment, then the missionary mandate loses its underlying rationale. But evangelization is essential to the Church’s life. As John Paul II writes, “In the Church’s history, missionary drive has always been a sign of vitality, just as its lessening is a sign of a crisis of faith.” 17 Part of the reason for this lessening is due to a reductive understanding of ministry that forgets the importance of apologetics. The Catholic Church is not just inclusive, it is expansive. Conversely, if the Church is not expansive, then one must seriously question whether the Church is fulfilling its mission.
(4) Apologetics is needed for pastors to understand the inner rationale of beliefs or viewpoints that are different or even contrary to the Church’s doctrines. The evangelical endeavor (one of the main purposes of the Church) demands that Christians familiarize themselves with different viewpoints. Repressing disagreement is not healthy for authentic faith, and certainly not with full Catholic faith. In recognizing differences, one makes the first step to understand the problems that need to be addressed for reunification and/or evangelization to take place.
(5) Apologetics is actually a form of compassion for pastors. In this sense, apologetics must be incorporated into ministry. Disagreements within the Church (and other Christian communities and religions) do not have to be completely incompatible for pastors to become more apologetical in scope. It only requires that believers at least think that their beliefs are apparently different from other viewpoints. The apologetic element to dialogue will help to reveal whether these differences are real or only apparent. The same theme works in reverse. If I hold to beliefs that are wrong or misguided, then I certainly would want other persons to point out where I have gone wrong. Good apologetic arguments, which are favorable to views that are contrary from my own, can help me to see my own theological errors.
It is strange that apologetics would be so lowly esteemed in so many Christian circles. Apologetics is needed now more than ever. The New Testament writers and early Church Fathers had to be heavily apologetical, for there was no Christian influence in culture yet. In a post-Christian context, it seems reasonable that we should have the same approach. An apologetical outlook might make greater inroads into the wider neo-pagan world. If we understand what apologetics is in its most basic sense (the positive and negative defense of the Gospel in both theoretical and practical forms), then obviously apologetics is relevant at any time. Even though our culture and theology continues to change, Christians still live in an era where people need to be convinced that Jesus is Lord. Obviously, this entails that Christians will have to make a defense of the Gospel. Again, there will always be objections to the Gospel, whether they are subconsciously or openly stated by outsiders and those within the Church. And this is precisely the reason why apologetics will always remain a significant part of the ministry.
Apologetic Strategies for Pastors
Even though there is real warfare going on between the Kingdom of Christ and the powers of this world (see Eph6:10-20), the pastor’s engagement with his congregation and the outside world should be more diplomatic than combative. Although Christianity is already philosophically well-positioned to deal with most objections, the more tactical concern of the minister has to do with the engagement. Defending the faith requires more than knowledge. It requires an artful method. Often a clever apologist can out-maneuver someone who is more intelligent or has better arguments on the table at the moment. Let us look at some tactics that might help ambassadors for Christ to use apologetics to advance the Reign of God.
(1) Pastors are not only called to give answers to questions, but to become answer-bearers. 18 They must learn to respond with swift feet and gentle hands, rather than words alone. Earlier in this discussion, I mentioned an objection to apologetics: “Lead by example, not words!” Now, the objection is not completely wrong, but it can be seriously misconstrued if not completely taught well. If one is holy, then they will use every means at their disposal to reach the lost, not just ways that exclude the mind and verbal persuasion. Holiness may be more than rational, but it is certainly not less than rational. Conversely, if one uses rational argument, then this can become a means by which the Spirit sanctifies believers and even outsiders.
The best thing that pastors can do in the midst of their parish’s emotional struggles and doubts about the faith (including weekly attendance at Mass, abiding by the Church’s ethical positions, etc.) is to be present in the lives of the Church’s members. Love is the ultimate apologetic, for it reaches the whole person. People are awakened in the faith by the pastor’s presence in their lives. Apologetics should not focus exclusively on the mind, but should include the heart as well. Someone once said that the number one argument for Christianity is Christians. But the number one argument against Christianity is believers. Hence, the way that Church leaders live out their lives will often affect the missionary lives of the laity (cf. Rom 6:13; 2 Tim 2:19-21). Too many unbelievers, and lukewarm believers, see the sterile lifestyles of the Church and flippantly believe that there is no supernatural component to Catholicism or even the sacraments.
(2) Pastors must keep abreast of where contemporary science and culture are headed, be able to build sound philosophical arguments, converse with the sports fans in the parish and surrounding community, and make cogent illustrations in homilies and catechetical sessions from the latest movies, news, and other significant events occurring in the world. Ministers are called to keep up with the latest developments in these disparate fields and disciplines because members of the parish (and potential converts) are so diversified, and the needs of the people are so great.
By understanding the signs of the times, pastors can then anticipate objections and remove obstacles for people to perceive the truth of Christ. 19 The Gospel is never heard in a vacuum, but is always heard against the backdrop of the culture we live in. Thus, it is the sacred duty of ministers to clarify the meanings of the terms that they use. Another challenge is to bring balance between heart and mind. If, for example, all of the claims of Christ can be backed only by philosophical and historical evidences, someone who struggles with the relevance of the Gospel might not be able to make the connection between the Gospel and her life situation today. On the other hand, overly charismatic groups too often neglect the mind, and so might seem sensationalistic or even superstitious to outsiders. Homilies should, therefore, be built on the assumption that doctrine and practice are equally important. They are also excellent opportunities to explain why people ought to become and remainCatholic Christians. Pastors should never assume that the people in the pews are interested in what they have to say.
(3) Instead of going on the offensive by advancing conversations with assertions, use lots of questions to get dialogue partners to think about their own viewpoints. Most skeptics and other doubters of Church teaching have never seriously thought through their own positions (or read about them) and instead, rely on generalizations and slogans. This tactic seems very harmless: lots of head scratching and halting. Questions are, by definition, interactive and invitational. They are also neutral and involve no “preaching.” Sometimes questions such as “What did you mean by that?” and “How did you come to that conclusion?” can be used continuously by ministers. Questions are highly effective because they show the person that you are genuinely concerned to know what they think. And they force your dialogue partner to think more carefully about what they mean. It is important to reject the impulse of answering the questions immediately. For the pastor can be reassured that all non-Catholic positions will eventually show themselves to be self-stultifying. Once this realization occurs in the dialogue, the minister can use it as a springboard opportunity for evangelization (in any of the various ways in which this can occur). Don’t be fooled by the idea that the Catholic Church is the sole party that must defend herself. Alternative viewpoints must bear the burden of proof as well.
(4) Sometimes rational apologetics is necessary. People in our churches are highly educated and willing to think; they are often capable of digesting strong, thought-provoking content and are spiritually hungry for it. How do we differentiate eastern mysticism from Catholic spirituality? In light of the bombardment of anti-supernatural portraits of Jesus on TV, what good evidence is there for his divinity and resurrection? How can the Catholic Church claim to be the one true religion in light of so many other religions? How could a loving God and an eternal hell both coexist? Aren’t liturgical practices impersonal? Why do priests live a celibate life? Why must couples practice Natural Family Planning? Though many persons might be unable to formulate such questions, they do think through them and have probably never received good answers to them. Many times they quickly arrive at answers that seem reasonable at the spur of the moment in their own minds without the help of knowledgeable Catholics. These persons need to be catechized apologetically.
Despite the decline of apologetics soon after Vatican II, the discipline is now making a steady comeback. As Dulles espies, the Church is witnessing the “rebirth of apologetics.” 20 But he cautions that it needs to be shaped under the theological vision of the Council, taking on a more holistic approach than before. Though a newer approach to apologetics will be pastorally sensitive, it will still include the use of argument and evidence. This newer vision of apologetics is in need of nurturance by the Church’s pastors. Pastors must become apologists. An apologetical outlook is precisely one of the necessary ingredients for effective sanctification and evangelization to take place.
This essay has provided reasons to engage in apologetics, showed how the discipline is relevant to Christian practice, and provided some preliminary apologetic strategies for pastors. In this way, I have shown how apologetics is relevant to ministry. Ideas have consequences. Beliefs affect outward behavior. Doctrine helps to determine devotion. Apologetics is not a craft that is relegated to the academy alone. It is designed for everyone involved in ministry. Apologetics can be directly useful for evangelical purposes. It is also known for reinforcing prior Christian commitment. Sadly, apologetics is often thought of as a theoretical discipline without practical application. Perhaps this impression has been passed down to us from the pre-conciliar, manualist style of apologetics.
In our discussion, we learned that the problems that prevent individuals from embracing the Catholic faith are often deep and psychological, not just intellectual. Apologists must confront these issues, and address them as well. Consider the example of a lawyer. Lawyers must go through a great deal of training to understand the science of jurisprudence, and how it applies to individual, real-life scenarios. Once the lawyer knows what the problems are, she can begin to take the appropriate action to help resolve the situation. But this takes skill in first knowing the facts about the law, and what points need to be developed to make a convincing case. The same goes for apologetics. An effective apologist will identify the obstacles that lie in the way of the path to faith, and address those points. Thus, there is a mutual interplay between theory and practice in apologetics. Hopefully the anti-apologetical trends in the Church will cease, and we will be more welcoming of apologetics, in general, and its relationship to pastoral practice.
- Paul J. Griffiths, An Apology for Apologetics: A Study in the Logic of Interreligious Dialogue, (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2008), 2. ↩
- Glenn B. Siniscalchi, “Postmodernism and the Need for Apologetics in a Post-Conciliar Church,” Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 1, (December, 2010): forthcoming. ↩
- Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell, (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1984), 67. ↩
- Glenn B. Siniscalchi, “The Spirit of Apologetics in the Constitutions of the Second Vatican Council,” Ecumenical Trends. Vol. 39, No. 4, (April, 2010): 6-12; idem, “The Spirit of Apologetics in the Decrees of the Second Vatican Council,” Ecumenical Trends. Vol. 39, No. 5, (May, 2010): 5-14; idem, “The Spirit of Apologetics in the Declarations of the Second Vatican Council,” Ecumenical Trends. Vol. 39, No. 6, (June, 2010): 12-15. ↩
- John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, N. 67. ↩
- Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell, (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1984), 71. ↩
- Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone?, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1987). ↩
- C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays in Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1970), 173. ↩
- See Augustine’s The Confessions. ↩
- Antony Flew, There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, (New York: Harper Collins, 2007). ↩
- Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, 28, 92. ↩
- John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, N. 39. ↩
- Avery Dulles, “The Rebirth of Apologetics,” First Things, No. 143, (May 2004): 19, 20. ↩
- Avery Dulles, “The Rebirth of Apologetics,” First Things, No. 143, (May 2004): 20. ↩
- Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 30th anniversary edition, second ed., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 198. ↩
- Avery Dulles, “The Rebirth of Apologetics,” First Things, No. 143, (May 2004): 20. ↩
- John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, N. 2. ↩
- For a comprehensive discussion, see René Latourelle, Christ and the Church: Signs of Salvation, (New York: Alba House, 1972). ↩
- Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium 36; Apostolicam Actuositatem, 14, 16, 19, 20, 29; Gaudium et Spes, 21, 43, 57, 76. ↩
- Avery Dulles, “The Rebirth of Apologetics,” First Things, No. 143, (May 2004): 19-23. ↩