Friday, October 26, 2012

Book Review: Thinking About Christian Apologetics: What It Is and Why We Do It by James K. Beilby

When I first laid eyes on this book I was excited to read it. Being a novice in Christian apologetics, I was expecting it to lay a foundation which would help keep my focus and effectiveness as a Christian apologist sound. And it did not disappoint.

Chapter One:  What is Christian Apologetics?

In this chapter, Beilby adeptly covers the following six areas:

1. A Basic Definition.  The very first sentence of the book defines apologetics. From there, Beilby shifts to Christian apologetics by providing passages where the noun form of apologia appears in the New Testament. These passages reveal that “Christian apologetics involves an action (defending), a focus of the action (the Christian faith itself), a goal (upholding Christianity as true), and a context (the circumstances in which apologetics occurs)” (p. 13). 

2. Making a Defense. The two different aspects of apologetics (responsive and proactive) and where we see them carried out in the New Testament are discussed in this section. From the examples in scripture, Beilby provides a succinct picture of the activities that take place in apologetics with the phrase “defending and commending the faith” (p. 14).

3. Defending the Christian Faith.  What is meant by the term Christian and what about the term Christian does apologetics defend? These questions are examined in this section resulting in the key idea:  “The proper domain of apologetics is the defense of dogmas [defined as core Christian claims], not doctrines [defined as attempts to explain, apply and flesh out dogmas]” (p. 20). Brackets mine.

4. The Goals and Limitations of Apologetics.  Beilby explains that the goal of apologetics is as follows:

“ offer sound reasons to believe the Christian faith, reasons that (1) accurately represent the gospel of Jesus Christ, (2) are presented in a Christ-like manner, (3) address our interlocutor’s questions and current spiritual disposition, and (4) help the interlocutor move from a position of basic mistrust (of God, Christianity, etc.) to a position of basic trust-a position that will allow the person to eventually commit his or her life to Jesus Christ” (p. 24).

Three limits of apologetics are also determined. First, apologetics cannot and should not provide a revision of the fundamental ideas and concepts of Christianity. Second, apologetics cannot compel belief in Jesus Christ. Finally, apologetics cannot create commitment to Christ.

5. The Apologetic Audience and Context.  The potential audiences (person or persons to whom one is speaking to) and contexts (the environments in which one’s apologetic conversations occur) are examined in this section. The definition of Christian apologetics is provided at the end of this examination as “the task of defending and commending the truthfulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ in a Christlike, context-sensitive and audience-specific manner” (p. 31).

6. Apologetics and Related Disciplines.  This section ends the chapter with a discussion of Christian apologetics and its relationship with the disciplines (in ascending order of importance) of meta-apologetics, philosophy of religion, evangelism, and theology.

A highlight for this reader, is a quote from James Sire found in the notes of the chapter:  “The success of any apologetic argument is not whether it wins converts but whether it is faithful to Jesus” (p. 201).

Chapter Two:  Patristic and Medieval Apologetics

In this chapter, Beilby discusses the various ways Christianity was defended and commended during the period starting with the early church through the Reformation and the notable individuals who impacted apologetics during this time frame.

Chapter Three:  Modern and Contemporary Apologetics

In this chapter, Beilby discusses the various ways Christianity was defended and commended during the period starting with the Enlightenment through the twentieth century and the notable individuals who impacted apologetics during this time frame.

He then ends this chapter with a brief discussion of three current and future issues he sees in apologetics in the twenty-first century: 

1. Objections to apologetics. Particularly the persistence of the line of thinking which holds that “the assertion of a particular position is inherently intolerant to those with whom you disagree and that arguing for your religious belief and against others exhibits a lack of respect for the views of others.” (p. 84)

2. Postmodernism.  “Christians must seek to articulate pictures of truth, rationality and knowledge that acknowledge the postmodern critique of the excesses of modernity. At the same time, they must remain faithful to the Christian concept of God as an objective reality, not merely a social construct, and human knowledge of God and his expectations of humans as possible even if not complete or final” (pp. 84-85).

3. The globalization of Christianity. Beilby advises that with the number of Christians increasing in places like Asia, South and Latin America, and Africa, Christian apologists must learn how to contextualize the defense of the gospel in non-Western settings.

Chapter Four:  Varieties of Apologetics

This chapter focuses on the different strategies of apologetics:  evidentialist; presuppositionalist; experientialist.  Beilby examines why different methods exist and what each of them are. He then goes on to evaluate each of them by presenting the objections to their use.

At the end of the chapter he poses the possibility of a “eclectic apologetic approach” which was used by Augustine, Anselm, and Pascal and is used today by many contemporary apologists such as Edward Carnell, C. Stephen Evans, and Alvin Plantinga. Of note is a quote from Carnell who said:

“There is no ‘official’ or ‘normative’ approach to apologetics….The approach is governed by the climate of the times. This means, as it were, that an apologist must play it by ear.” (p. 109)

Chapter Five:  Philosophical Objections to Apologetics

In this chapter, Beilby tackles objections to apologetics such as skepticism, postmodernism, and religious relativism.

Of particular note to this reader (by the mere fact that I had never heard of it before) is the white and Western objection. He sums it up this way, “The basic idea is that apologetics is tied to white and Western modes of thinking” (p. 129). He writes that the objection is difficult to articulate because some object to apologetics because it “assumes patterns of theological belief, persuasion and logic that are either inappropriate or ineffective in non-white and non-Western contexts” or for some, their objection “lies in the fact that apologetics is implicated in a long and tragic history of colonialization” (p. 129)

To answer this objection, Beilby writes that Christians must acknowledge past mistakes and seek to distance themselves from them. They must also deal with the “assumption that racial and cultural identities are the sole determinants of religious and moral beliefs. While the ethical and theological beliefs of the West are not true just because they are Western, neither are they false just because they are Western” (p. 130). Finally, the objection assumes a common truth and value across cultures-that oppression and exploitation are wrong.

Chapter Six:  Biblical and Theological Objections to Apologetics

This chapter tackles the objections to apologetics presented by Christians. Beilby ends the chapter highlighting the value and importance of apologetics for four reasons:

1. Apologetics is commanded by God. 1 Peter 3:15, 2 Corinthians 10:5, Jude 3, Titus 1:9 are presented as supportive of the discipline. He clarifies that “all Christians are called to do lifestyle apologetics. But only some Christians will be called to the task of developing arguments for the Christian faith and being on the front line of the dialogue between Christianity and the exponents of other belief systems” (p. 151-152).

2. Apologetics is necessary in our culture. He lists ideas that are prevalent in our culture:

i. Real knowledge comes from the five senses.

ii. Faith is “believing what you know ain’t so” (Mark Twain).

iii. Belief in God’s existence is for the uneducated and weak-minded.

iv. What we call miracles are just unique events that science has yet to explain.

v. Believing that your religious beliefs are true and those of others who disagree with you are false is inherently arrogant and intolerant.

vi. Jesus Christ was a good moral teacher, but most of what is said about him in the Bible was made up by the church.

“These ideas will not just go away if ignored. Like weeds in a garden, they need to be extracted and destroyed….The ground also needs to be cultivated in a way that encourages authentic expressions of the Christian faith and interactions of Christianity with contemporary culture to flourish” (p. 153)

3. Theological education requires an appropriate emphasis on apologetics. “Without a conviction of the truthfulness of the Christian message and without some capacity to answer the questions that arise when teaching about the good news of Jesus Christ, theological education quickly loses both its theos and its logos” (p. 154).

4. Meaningful dialogue requires a perspective that is supportive of apologetics. “Meaningful dialogue is only possible between people who acknowledge both the importance of truth and the possibility that one (or both) perspective represented in the conversation might fail to be true” (p. 155).   

Chapter Seven:  Doing Apologetics Well

This chapter states that an effective and appropriate apologetic must have three things:

1. A proper understanding of the nature of Christian belief.
2. A proper understanding of the nature of unbelief.
3. Combining a proper approach to apologetic conversations with effective apologetic arguments.

Beilby offers six principles to implement in order to obtain item 3 above:

1. The quality of your arguments matters. “People are not generally persuaded by sloppy reasoning and fallacious arguments” (p. 174). He continues by stating that a good apologetic argument requires significant knowledge of Scripture and theology, passion and conviction, careful study and research, a willingness to test one’s most cherished beliefs, consideration of all available evidence and potential objections, and the proper presentation.

2. Who you are is more important than what you say. “Being a person of character is a necessary part of being an effective apologist, but it is not sufficient by itself. If an apologist is a person of character, then the character itself functions as a kind of an argument for the truth of Christianity” (p. 175) Beilby also writes, “Being comfortable with who you are, being able to control your emotions, and having a natural ability to connect with and relate to people are absolutely essential skills for effective and appropriate apologetics” (p. 176).

3. It’s not about you. Apologetic encounters should not be about impressing the conversation partner or other Christians or about winning the argument.

4. It is about them. An apologist must be audience-focused. This involves the following:  understanding the relational dynamics of a conversation; understanding the beliefs of the conversation partner and why they disagree with the Christian faith; speaking in a language the partner understands; understanding how the partner views you; listening more than speaking and understanding more than being understood.  

5. Set the correct goal. Moving a conversation partner a step closer to relationship with Jesus through the proper arguments, attitude, and actions.

6. Acknowledge the role of the Holy Spirit.  Beilby writes:

“In our apologetic encounters, we must see ourselves as part of a process-a process in which the most important player is not us, but the Holy Spirit. As apologists we must baptize all our apologetic endeavors in the conviction that unless the Holy Spirit has prepared the ground for our conversation, is with us in our conversation, and will continue the work of conviction long after the conversation is needed, our efforts will come to nothing” (p. 182)

Finally, there is a bibliography of works on Christian apologetics at the end of the book.


If you are entering the world of Christian apologetics I recommend this book. With precision and fervor, Beilby:  provides a clear definition of apologetics and its history and varieties; defends the importance of apologetics and; ever emphasizes that the task of apologetics is to defend and commend the truthfulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that honors him and expresses his love to a world that needs to see it and that its goal is to draw those who disbelieve it or doubt it a step closer to a relationship with Jesus.            

Stand Firm in Christ,

Chase Deener                                                                                                                                                                                            

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