On Virtue in Apologetics

I recently attended a conference on apologetics that was inspiring and very well orchestrated. The speakers are on the front lines of apologetics and they are at the top of their game in their discipline. The topics addressed by astrophysicists, philosophers, historians, and even electrical engineers were all vital for effectively reaching the world with the Christian message.

The goal of the conference was “training believers to be confident, courageous, and culturally aware.” After some reflection on my experience, there are 3 areas I propose would be helpful in rounding out an apologetics conference and help reach this worthy goal. They are the integration of virtue, the necessity of defining method, and the value of dialog. This post will address the first of these.

On Apologetics and Virtue
So often it seems that mainline Christianity views apologetics as mere bantering and bickering about difficult topics. And, I wonder if Christian apologists bear some responsibility for this perception. One of the undercurrents that I observe when Christians gather (whether in church, a home, or at a conference) is that we tend to “let down our hair” and speak freely with one another. In these “holy huddles” our free speak in turn accommodates loose or casual language where attitudes easily rise to the surface but often go unnoticed. In an otherwise “mixed” crowd with unbelievers, Christians are (rightfully in my mind) more guarded in their speak and these attitudes would not be so apparent, yet believers who huddle together don’t intentionally mask their attitude or use guarded speech so much. Are Christians the same people both on the court and off it? In other words, do we portray the same love and compassion for those who’ve not embraced the Gospel when we speak about them in their absence as when we speak to them in their presence?

Put differently, where is the place for virtues in apologetics? While Christian apologists readily come to the defense of the faith when someone levels an argument against a core Christian belief, is there just as much zeal for humility and honesty as there is in arguing for the existence of God or against abortion? Is it evident to Christians that the goal in winning arguments is to lovingly persuade non-believers to consider their position in light of eternity? Or, do apologists take it for granted that since the audience is filled with believers that it’s safe to spew disdain for opposition to Christianity? Does not the apologist bear any burden in making the discipline of apologetics attractive to the believing community by portraying the virtues when doing apologetics?

The biblical answer is “Yes.” The apologist’s spiritual life is just as important as the intellectual life. In fact, there is a necessary dependence of the latter upon the former. Without a solid, intentional commitment to developing and practicing the virtues, apologetics is anemic at best and down right ugly at worst. As Doug Groothuis states “If we grow in apologetic ability—or any other area of competence in ministry—without growing in the grace of humility, an ugly arrogance results, which threatens to blunt or even undermine the force of the best apologetics” (Christian Apologetics, p. 38).

  • When speaking to those who’ve embraced Christianity, how might the apologist display courage to speak out against the cultural, political, and moral antitheses so prevalent in society while clearly showing genuine love and compassion for those who oppose Christianity?
  • Precisely what does intellectual humility and intellectual honesty look like when apologists are “preaching to the choir?”

Unless and until these questions are raised and addressed, apologetics will not find favor in the church or the culture and frustration will continue being the “hemlock”  of apologists. Moreover, the believing community will likely continue viewing the discipline of persuasive arguments as divisive and hurtful. The virtues must be evident to everyone (believer and nonbeliever) whenever the faith is defended.

The hallmark verse for every Christian apologist is 1 Peter 3:15 “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” Without sincerely revering an opponent’s argument, however distasteful it may be, the virtue of intellectual humility will not be evident. Of course, apologists must genuinely entertain whether or not there is any truth value to a proposition, regardless of how absurd it may seem. Yet, in the moment of reflection not only will the opponent witness honest evaluation and consideration of their position, but so too will the apologist be teaching believers the value of “respect.” When the apologist is a sincere truth-seeker, it becomes possible to respect a position with which we ardently disagree.

Moreover, the Spirit’s gentleness (Gal 5:23) is not reserved for mature believers only but must be evident in all apologists and to all believers. “Be completely humble and gentle” (Eph 4:2). “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.” (NIV 2011, Tit 3:1–2). Gentleness is not only the manner in which arguments are to be confronted and disarmed, but is also the most important weapon in the armor of the apologists. “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 2:24–25; see also Prov 15:1).

At the end of the day, Christian apologists must both “be prepared to give an answer” and portray “gentleness and respect” at every turn and to every audience. In doing so, the value of apologetics will grow in the believing community and, God willing, unbelieving hearts will be convinced of the beauty of the One who said “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle” (Mt 11:29).

See also my essay “Why Apologetics is Important to Your Church”.

4 thoughts on “On Virtue in Apologetics”

  1. Like many things in life virtue is key. It doesn’t help if we are knowledgeable and exercise sound tactics and reasoning, while at the same time being mean spirited or if we live a non-virtuous life which undermines our message. Greg Koukl at Stand to Reason lays this out quite well in his Ambassador’s Basic Curriculum.

    In my own case, I am very competitive in nature and my first instinct is to demolish all the arguments soundly. However, at times I have been told I come across as mean spirited. Sadly, that’s a fair criticism and I am working on overcoming that, by the grace of God. It is important to remember (and I include myself in this admonition) that our goal is to win the person, not just the argument.

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