Engaging Unbelief

An urgent need exists for worldview analysis and a wholistic apologetic to address unbelief and its socio-cultural effects through our teaching, research, and administration. As missional Christian academics, we should earnestly strive to love God with our minds, but we also urge others to do the same. Likewise, we must engage with those who challenge the biblical worldview with all of our heart, mind, and strength. What follows is a summary of biblical teaching to guide our understanding on the meaning and practice of apologetics as we engage unbelief.

First, Christian hope and perseverance often provoke curiosity in the face of persecution and injustice. 1 Peter 3:15–16, the classic text about apologetics, commands believers to be ever ready to ‘make a defense’ of their faith in Christ, despite suffering, ‘to anyone who asks’. Peter shows how apologetics confronts the enigma of personal suffering. He teaches that piety and ethics are intimately linked to the motivation for and practice of apologetics. We must “honor Christ the Lord as holy” in our innermost being, possess a ‘good conscience’, and demonstrate ‘good behavior’. Apologetics should operate with ‘gentleness and respect’, no matter what argument we use or with whomever we engage.

Second, the Greek term for apologetics, apologia, means literally ‘to talk oneself off a charge’ or ‘to defend oneself’. In most instances, the term refers to a Christian’s response to legal prosecution, religious persecution, accusation, or inquiry. The New Testament provides examples from various litigious settings before Jews, Christians, and Gentiles. Part of apologetics is defending our faith by providing answers or responding to criticisms and accusations raised by opponents from within the ‘logic’ of the Gospel. We seek to demonstrate the intellectual and existential justification of our faith, as well as to correct misunderstandings about the meaning and message of Christianity.

Third, there are two important uses of the term, anapologia, ‘without an excuse’, that refer to mankind’s self-apologetic before God and his covenant lawsuit against unrighteous mankind (Rom 1:20, 2:1; similar term in 3:9). Human beings often put God on trial and assign to him culpability for malfunction and misfortune on earth, and then demand of God an apologetic. Part of apologetics, then, is ‘turning the tables’ and demonstrating that human beings are literally ‘without a defense’ in God’s courtroom.

Fourth, the concept and practice of apologetics is iconoclastic. This is evidenced by Paul’s vocabulary against unbelievers and opponents in Acts (especially in Acts 14:8-14 and 17:16–32). Like Paul, the Bible often critiques other worldviews and religions, such as, Babylonian creation myths, Egyptian theocracy, Babylonian imperialistic ideology, pagan wisdom, and Roman Pax Romana. Furthermore, since Christ is the Lord of all that exists, every sphere of life, goal, motivation, paradigm, academic discipline, ideology, and system must be evaluated in light of Christ as revealed in scripture. Part of apologetics, then, is the internal critique of worldviews and personal unbelief to demonstrate its intellectual and existential implausibility.

Apologetics affirms the Lordship of Christ over the mind, the purpose of revelation, the impact of sin upon thinking, and the essential role of worldview, religion, and culture in establishing the plausibility of beliefs. Apologetics recognizes, further, that people are not simply ‘blank slates’ written upon with effective arguments or the biblical worldview. Rather, we are all situated within a worldview web of preconceived ideas and cultural expectations. This is why apologetics is diagnostic. It asks: How do the listeners process the information and arguments presented to them? How do others, who see reality through their worldview, respond to our worldview? Apologetics listens first to questions and context before it speaks or provides answers.

Lastly, apologetics recognizes that disputations occur within the context of relationships with others, seeking first to understand before being understood. Apologists should imitate great apologists of Christian faith like Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Aquinas, Anselm, Blaise Pascal, C. S. Lewis, Elizabeth Anscombe, Cornelius Van Til, and Francis Schaeffer, who modelled ‘intellectual hospitality’ with those who differed with them. As such, apologetics embraces a humble and gentle disposition, even as it passionately argues for and holds firmly to the truth, goodness, and beauty of the triune God as attested to in Scripture.

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