The Hibernation of Apologetics

May 19, 2016

by William Edgar

Apologetics, the defense and commendation of a Christian worldview, went into something of a hibernation, if not an eclipse, in the twentieth century. A number of factors contributed to this slumber. Following an age of relative confidence in the capacity of humankind to bring about the kingdom of God, the new century found so many reasons to put such confidence into question. It was a time of unforeseen upheavals and became the bloodiest of all centuries in human history. The tribulations of the First and Second World Wars, economic turmoil, revolutions, dictators, and global threats of hostilities meant doubts about the future even in the realm of theology. Artists such as Picasso or Mondrian depicted a world without any kind of trustworthy transcendent meaning. The strange, troubled Polish émigré to Britain Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) wrote powerfully about his discoveries, in various colonies, of the manifestation of human evil. With some exceptions, the twentieth century was a time of disillusionment and doubt.

Accordingly, theologians such as Karl Barth (1886–1968) simply dismissed apologetics as a weak-kneed concession to natural theology. Rightly critical of the nineteenth-century pretentions claiming to usher in God’s kingdom in human ways, Barth went on, though, to argue that apologetics substitutes “human religion” for revelation, robbing the gospel of its inherent power. As he put it in the early parts of his Church Dogmatics, if Christianity takes up the weapons of apologetics, “it has renounced its birthright. It has renounced the unique power which it has as the religion of revelation. This power dwells only in weakness.” Apologetics, for Barth, only robs Jesus Christ of his freedom to make himself known directly. So great was Barth’s influence that many seminaries or graduate schools simply eliminated their departments of apologetics.

Spurgeon thought the discipline of apologetics a waste of time.

Suspicions of apologetics could also be found outside the neo-orthodox camp. No less an evangelical figure than Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–1892), and a number of his successors, thought the discipline a waste of time. “I question whether the defenses of the gospel are not sheer impertinences,” he once said. He declared that if Jesus were not capable of fighting his own battles, then Christianity would be in a bad state indeed. Using the familiar illustration of the lion in a cage, he declared that the best strategy is not to defend the beast, but to let him out. The “prince of preachers” worried that apologetics would simply compromise the authority of the gospel preached.

Similarly, certain exegetes argued that the apostle Paul decided when he came to Corinth “to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1st Cor. 2:2) because he had tried apologetics on Mars Hill and failed to achieve any results (Acts 17:16–34). F. F. Bruce comments that some see Paul’s statement to the Corinthians as a “confessed decision … as though he realized that his tactics at Athens were unwise.” But Bruce comments that this was likely not the case, since Paul was no novice at Gentile evangelization. Rather, he was simply assessing two different contexts and responding appropriately. William Ramsey goes so far as to say that Paul was “disappointed and perhaps disillusioned by his experience in Athens. He felt that he had gone at least as far as was right in the way of presenting his doctrine in a form suited to the current philosophy; and the result had been little more than naught.”

Are these not various cases of throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater? Barth’s dialectical theology found little room for celebrating any kind of natural revelation; he feared it could lead to natural theology, wherein nature would be seen as predisposed to grace. In his estimation the opposite is the case: nature only resists grace. Barth’s extreme view finds no warrant in Scripture, which is very insistent on the authority, necessity, sufficiency, and clarity of God’s revelation in the creation and in human consciousness, as well as in special revelation. Romans 1:18–23 makes it clear that unbelieving people not only know about God and his standards, but also know God himself. Even Barth’s fellow neo-orthodox colleague Emil Brunner accepted the reality of a consciousness of God in the natural man, although in my view he did not deal fully with the implications of Romans 1:18ff. Barth’s polemical booklet Nein replied to Brunner’s timid suggestions.

The Gospel must be spoken in human language and argued carefully.

Spurgeon’s case is different. Perhaps like Barth he had read only the rationalist apologists of the nineteenth century, to which he rightly reacted. Unlike Barth, however, Spurgeon’s theology was not dialectical. Rather, his zeal was to protect the gospel from the overgrowth of philosophical reasoning and preach it in all its “naked simplicity.” The problem with that, however, is that it appears to eliminate all media—from the humanity of its carriers, to the requirement for adapting the message to particular audiences and cultures. After all, 1st Peter 3:15 enjoins the believer to respond to interlocutors with apologia. Making ourselves “all things to all people” does not necessarily compromise the gospel (1st Cor. 9:22). There really is no naked, simple gospel. It must be spoken in human language and argued carefully.

Ironically, there is plenty of argument and apologetics in Spurgeon’s sermons. The same might be said of Barth’s work as well. As to the view that Paul was disappointed in Athens and decided apologetics could not accomplish the task, we can find no evidence for any of that in the New Testament. While his time on Mars Hill was only brief, the result was the same as it was when he could stay in a place longer: some mocked, some wanted to hear more, and some joined him and believed (Acts 17:32–34). Besides, telling the Corinthians he would know only Christ and him crucified is a typically Pauline way of making his point. He is hardly telling them that he won’t reason anymore and that he’ll settle instead for repeating Christ and the cross like a mantra. His arguments for moral purity, for sound marriage, for eating food from the public market, for order in worship, and for the resurrection of the dead are among the most involved discourses found in the New Testament.

This piece is adapted from William Edgar, foreword to Covenantal Apologetics, by K. Scott Oliphint (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 11–14. Used with permission of the publisher.

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William Edgar

Dr. Edgar (DThéol, Université de Genève) is professor of apologetics at WTS.

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