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A Great introduction to Christian apologetics
on 8 November 2013
This book is an excellent introduction to apologetics. 'Apologetics aims to convert believers into thinkers, and thinkers into believers', (p.11), is one of McGrath's precise descriptions on this subject that offers a clear understanding of what apologetics aims to accomplish.
Since we now live in an age where the antagonists of the Christian faith are no longer content on deriding the faith but actually want to dismantle it, the need for good apologetics is as urgent as ever.
McGrath points out that apologetics has nothing to do with 'saying sorry about something' but rather comes from the Greek word 'apologia' which means 'defense'. We find the term in 1 Peter 3:15 '... Always prepared to give an answer [apologia] to everyone who asks you to give the reason [logos] for the hope that you have...'(NIV).
Apologetics relevance is not just that it defends the faith, but it also aids the believer in understanding the gospel much more deeply, as we enrich our minds (Matt 22:37; Rom. 12.2).
Apologetics involves defending, commending and translating the Christian faith. McGrath stresses that apologetics is not evangelism, and is inadequate without it (p. 23).
The issues someone engaged in apologetics will face depends very much on the culture within which he or she is operating. In Western Europe the main challenge the apologist faces is whether God actually exists. This is closely followed by questions on why does God allow suffering.
McGrath is not a proponent of offering stock answers to common questions, as several other Christian apologists do. While he obviously appreciates the need to be prepared with answers, he advocates that it is essential we
1. Understand the faith
2. Understand the audience
3. Communicate with clarity
4. Find points of contact
5. Present the whole question.
6. Practice, practice, practice (p.35 - 38), if we are to be effective apologists.
The rest of the book engages with these issues and I will summarise a few of them here briefly.
Understand the faith.
When it comes to understanding the faith it is helpful to see what the cross has accomplished - the forgiveness of our sins (the past 1 Cor. 15.3), continuous victory over sin (the present Heb 2.14-15), brings healing to broken and wounded humanity (hope to individuals Mal. 4.2; Isa 53.4-5), and demonstrates the love of God for humanity (God's nature John 3.16, 1John 4.8).
Understand the audience.
The gospel has to be made relevant and understandable to the audience it is confronted with. This is crucial to an effective apologetic presentation. McGrath takes examples from Acts 2 - Peter speaking to Jewish audience; Acts 17 - Peter speaking to Greeks at Athens. Here he illustrates how the gospel was made relevant with examples native to the audience, yet did not compromise the integrity of the Gospel. He also used Acts 24 - 26 where Paul used legal speech with the Romans. McGrath uses this to establish three principles that can be applied to apologetic presentations. 1.
Address the specific audience. 2. identify and deal with the main authorities or views they consider important. 3. Use an approach of communication and words they can identify with.
The main task of the apologist is to show that Christianity is reasonable. It aims to remove the hindrance from people accepting that Christianity is a valid way. McGrath quotes many historical and academic sources to argue his case, sometimes it feels like too many, (page 71-78). (Bearing in mind that McGrath is a scholar at the top of his field, and used to much more in-depth scholarly writing, one can understand how so many references got into a book tailored for popular reading).
McGrath often reiterates throughout the book that while 'conversion is ultimately the task of evangelism. Apologetics is about preparing the way for such a conversion by showing that it makes sense to believe in God.' (p. 78).
In pursuing the issue of the reasonableness of Christianity McGrath points out that in the late 19th century scientist tended to think that the universe had always existed. In the 20th century it became increasing clear that the universe actually came into being at what is now called the big band (p.64). This shifted the ground in favour of a designer.
McGrath provides, what he calls, clues to the existence of God that could be used by an apologist in discussion with an atheist. These are
1. The origin of the universe
2. Fine tuning - a universe designed for life
3. The structure of the physical world - the fact that the world is rationally understandable points to a rational designer with a mind. Someone in whose image we are created, hence we can comprehend his work. The 'reason within' - the rational mind, and the reason without - the logical structure in the universe, point to the mind of a creator – God (p. 102).
4. Morality - a longing for justice. As human beings created in the image of God we reflect, however dimly due to the fall, the nature of God.
5. Desire - a homing instinct for God. Here he quotes Augustine 'You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you (Augustine confessions l.i.1) (p.109).
6. Beauty - the splendour of the natural world. (My note - it is incredible that random chance and nature can be credited by some to have produced something as elegant as this world).
7. Rationality - God as a person.
8. Eternity - the intuition of Hope
Throughout the book Mcgrath lays emphasis on how apologetics differs from evangelism. Apologetics begins the conversation, evangelism brings it to its conclusion (p.123).
Apologetics is about building bridges, allowing people to cross from the world they already know to the one they need to discover.
He offers some helpful tips to doing apologetics
1. Be gracious when discussing with none Christians.
2. Discover what is the real question.
3. Don't give pre-packaged answers to honest questions.
4. Learn from other apologists – such as William Lane Craig, Peter Kreeft, Ravi Zacharias and in true to form as a humble Irish man he neglects to mention himself - Alister McGrath. You can find excellent debates involving all these four fine apologists on youtube.
Considering why does God allows suffering, a common and pertinent question often posed by people, McGrath advises to identify whether the person is looking for an answer to deal with the emotions of it - how do I cope, or to get an understanding of it intellectually - why does it happen.
The emotional prompted question means the person may have experienced suffering personally and needs comfort and assurance rather than a deep intellectual and abstract answer. The ‘why does it happen question’ however would benefit from an intellectual answer (talk about fallen mankind and sin in the world).
I hope this brief summary has given you a taste of what you are likely to get from this book. Well worth reading.
Alister Edgar McGrath is a British Irish theologian, priest, intellectual historian and Christian apologist, currently Professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education at Kings College London and Head of the Centre for Theology, Religion and Culture (Wikipedia).