“One shouldn’t teach on the edge of his knowledge.”
The same pastor friend who offered me this sage advice is also an expert in apologetics, the topic of this two-part series of articles. Let’s hope he’s not reading too critically as I formulate this infantile attempt at writing something both accurate and helpful on the topic. While I risk violating his nearly-always-applicable rule, I think it’s a necessary risk on occasion. Today is one of those occasions.
In its simplest sense, apologetics is simply speaking in defense of something. In the Christian context it is a defense of the faith, an activity aimed at unbelievers. I always use the word apologetics in its Christian sense, so you can count on that meaning for the rest of this series. The irony of apologetics is that the word does not mean what it sounds like it means. It is certainly not an apology as we think of one. As a matter of fact, I would say that to apologize for one’s beliefs calls into question whether or not the beliefs themselves are sincerely held.
Here’s the problem: though most of us would never think this of our apologetic, let alone admit it, we often mix a bona fide apology into it. Some examples:
1) We try to make Jesus cool to the masses. We act as if He needs our help. We try to spruce Him up a bit, keep Him “relevant,” for the sake of “bringing them in.” This shows up in our corporate worship (that thing that is between believers and God, not unbelievers and God), it shows up in our answers to tough questions about the hard teachings of Jesus, and it shows up in a whole lot of contemporary ministries’ casual (and irreverent) attitude toward Him, among other things.
2) We try to justify the “angry ogre” God of the Old Testament to unbelievers. The problem is, that’s a false god of our own contriving. The real God of the Old Testament is not in need of our justifications. He is perfect in all His attributes. He is no less loving, compassionate, longsuffering, patient, and good in the Old Testament as He is in the New. He is also no more just, wrathful, jealous, or angry at sin in the Old Testament as He is today. He is always the same. If we knew Him as He is revealed in Scripture we would be capable of using Scripture to communicate a Spirit-empowered portrait of God so awesome as to draw us and our brethren closer to Him, and to draw unbelievers to Him as well.
3) We try to blend the unchanging God with the ever-changing scientific theories that we are told are authoritative. For instance, we are pressured to capitulate key points of the biblical account of creation, such as a historical Adam and the literal nature of Genesis 1-11, to try and placate the anti-biblical spirit of our age and not be seen as foolish (we will discuss what true foolishness is later). We think that if we can just make Christianity a little more palatable, we can win them! And in the end, a noble goal ends up justifying an awful compromise. In the end, we find that our compromise not only failed to win genuine followers to Christ, it also resulted in the compromise of other Biblical truths in our lives that brought real damage and destruction in their wake. The damage is not limited to us alone, but poisons those around us as well. I am not generalizing here. I am thinking of specific examples I have witnessed. It is a real danger. If we can compromise some of Scripture, we can compromise any of it. We become the judge. It is a fearful experiment to trifle with.
Though certainly not an exhaustive list, each of these are apologies and they are unacceptable.
So if an apologizing apologetic is a wrong way to approach our defense of the faith, what is the right way? Does the Bible speak to this? I am so glad you asked.
In the definitive Biblical text on the issue, 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:16, the Apostle Paul gives an all-time classic treatise on the God-ordained apologetic. [Side note: It regularly amazes me how the Scriptures communicate such clear and powerful truth in such a short amount of space. Our God is awesome. He doesn’t need us to help justify Him.] Let’s go through it briefly and simply.
The very first thing Paul tells us in 1:17 is that he doesn’t preach the Gospel with clever words of his own devising. If he did that it would not be the power of the preached Cross, but the power of the arguing Paul, which is a woefully inadequate hook upon which to hang the weight of a human soul. Can the so-called “wisdom” of any man ever save someone? Even that of a great apostle? Of course not! It is the Cross that brings the power.
17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
Throughout this passage, Paul is going to use a back-and-forth somewhat sarcastic style of interchange in which the Cross is viewed as foolishness by lost mankind, and on the contrary, mankind views itself as the wise. Note verses 18-19:
18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
A key idea so far is that the real power to save comes from the Cross, and if that power is exchanged for my own cleverness or “wisdom,” the power of the Cross is forfeited. I take this to imply that when the power of the Cross is forfeited, sinners are not brought to repentance. So in my best, most sincere human efforts to win them, I have damned them instead.
Paul goes on to describe how God views the so-called wisdom of this age. And isn’t His the only opinion that matters? Indeed. Verses 20-25:
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
The wisdom of God always wins. And His wisdom says to preach the “foolishness” of the cross, not our own witty locutions. Now at this point you might be wondering, “How does this all tie in with the three example problems you gave earlier?” The answer: it renders them unnecessary. Worse, it renders them sin. God has a specific opinion, a will, on our apologetic. To wander from it is to reject His Word. It is to cast off the authority of Scripture. It is to rebel.
But why did God make it so? Why do it this way? The answer begins to unfold in the final verses of Chapter 1, and that’s where we will pick up in Part Two of this series.
UPDATE: 4/16/2014: Part Two & Part Three
All Scripture taken from: English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.