February 6, 2013

Scriptural Lessons for Apologetics

by Mike Riccardi

BibleWhen Christians think and speak about apologetics—about defending the Christian faith against the attacks of unbelievers—it can sometimes be the case that Scripture itself is one of the furthest things from their minds. When endeavoring to defend the faith, many of us think immediately of archaeology, of philosophical arguments, of scientific proofs and rebuttals, of canonicity and textual criticism, and of refutations of classic atheistic arguments. While all those things have their place in a well-rounded, robustly prepared defender of the faith, it’s unfortunate that Scripture can be one of the last places we think to inform our apologetic methodology. But in point of fact, there are many passages in the Bible that teach us much regarding issues of defending the faith and reasoning with unbelievers. I’d like to explore some of those lessons today.

A God-Dependent Epistemology

One of the tasks of apologetics is to determine proper grounds for believing in something. This discipline is called epistemology—the study of how we know what we know. Proverbs 1:7 states simply that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. In this short statement, God declares to us that the only sure foundation of knowing anything properly is to fear and worship Him. To reject the existence of God—or even to admit the existence of God but to fail to worship Him as He requires—precludes one from knowing anything soundly. That’s why the Psalms repeat that it is the fool who has said, “There is no God” (Pss 14:1; 53:1).

A Biblical Anthropology

In fact, the Bible tells us that God has clearly made Himself known to the world, such that there is no excuse for rejecting His existence. Romans 1:20 says, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” On top of this, all people are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26–27) with the law of God written on their hearts, such that their conscience naturally informs them of their rejection of Him (Rom 2:14–15). These texts teach us that the unbeliever’s primary problem is ethical, not intellectual. The problem with the unbelieving mind is not that it lacks the right information or enough evidence. Rather, the unbeliever knows the truth, but actively suppresses that truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18) because he loves his sin (John 3:20). All of the evidence he is presented with will be filtered through a sinful worldview, because, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:4, his mind has been blinded to glory. You can present evidence to a blind man all day, but unless his blindness is cured he’ll never even be able to evaluate it rightly.

Implications of Depravity for Apologetics

This leads the Christian to at least three conclusions. First, our apologetic method is inextricably linked to the preaching of the Gospel. The Holy Spirit must open blind eyes before evidence can be interpreted rightly (2 Cor 4:6; cf. 1 Cor 2:14). Secondly, there is no such thing as neutral thinking, and in our apologetics we must never treat an unbeliever as if he reasons autonomously. Everyone has presuppositions. We must keep in mind the unbeliever’s presuppositions when we engage him, and we must not surrender our own—for they are the presuppositions of Scripture, which is to say, the presuppositions of reality. Finally, because our thinking is so infected with sin, the only proper foundation for knowledge is God’s revelation. Scripture must be fundamental in our apologetic encounters.

1 Peter 3:15

A text with great implications for apologetics is 1 Peter 3:15. Peter expected that the Christians’ endurance of great persecution would cause outsiders to ask them why they were so hopeful in the midst of such suffering. He tells them, “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, Always Readyyet with gentleness and reverence.” This teaches us a number of things. First, Christians must always be ready to defend the faith accurately. That means we should make whatever preparations necessary to be equipped in this regard. Secondly, it presumes that a defense is to be made against attacks on the faith. A major function of apologetics is to answer misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Christianity. Thirdly, it teaches us about our attitude. Many Christians engage in apologetics with a pugnacious and contentious spirit. Instead of this, the Christian apologist is to defend the faith with gentleness and reverence.

Defensive and Offensive

Not only is apologetics concerned with defending the faith from outside attack, it is also concerned with refuting the claims of non-Christian belief systems. Paul uses graphic language to make this point clear: “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). Thus, our task is not only to show that Christianity is reasonable, but to demonstrate that other worldviews are unreasonable. According to Scripture, apologetics is both defensive and offensive—both negative and positive.

The Necessity of Wisdom

Further, Proverbs 26:4–5 teaches us that wisdom is required in apologetics. There are certain times when we must not answer a fool according to his folly, lest we be like him. Yet there are other times when we indeed must answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes. We must pray for wisdom from God to know when one or the other of these is the appropriate course of action (cf. Jas 1:5).

Biblical Examples

Scripture also generously affords us some observable examples of Christian apologetics. In the opening verses of his Gospel, Luke makes his purpose for writing known: he wanted Theophilus to know the exact truth about the things he was taught regarding Jesus Christ (1:4). For Luke, this was to be accomplished by a careful investigation of “everything” (1:3)—including eyewitness testimony (1:2)—and presenting it in “consecutive order.” Luke was “making his case,” so to speak, for the reality and veracity of the doctrine of Christ.

In Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees in Matthew 12, we see Him contradicting a claim that does not correspond to reality (12:24) by reasoned arguments. He reduces their argument to absurdity (12:25–26), shows them to be inconsistent (12:27), and offers His miracles as proof that He is King (12:28). Each of these components provide insight into a biblical apologetic methodology.

In Acts 17, we can learn from the Apostle Paul’s preaching Christ to the philosophers of Athens. We must understand that he argued specifically contrary to the presuppositions of his hearers (Ac 17:24–26, 31), making no attempt to find an initial point of agreement and then pursue a neutral method of argumentation. When he reasoned with the Jews who, at least in theory, accepted the authority of Scripture, he began with Scripture as evidence for Jesus’ lordship. Yet with pagans with no access to the Hebrew Bible, he argued from creation and challenged them to turn from their idolatry. In either case, his epistemological framework had not changed, for the Gospel he preached was “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3–4). His practice was to preach the truth, to give reasons for his viewpoint, to present the Gospel of Christ, and to demand for repentance (Ac 17:30–31).

Can you think of any other biblical texts that inform the way we defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints?

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Linda Mac Donald

    Proverbs 26:4–5 teaches us that wisdom is required in apologetics. There are certain times when we must not answer a fool according to his folly, lest we be like him. Yet there are other times when we indeed must answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes. ”

    I apologize but this doesn’t set well with me. When I read “we must not answer a fool according to his folly”, it’s not saying we can’t answer someone but we are NOT to answer according to his folly. So We can (always) give an answer to a fool but never according to one’s folly. So I disagree that we must answer a fool according to his folly.
    It’s not saying not to answer a fool, it’s saying not to answer (according to one’s folly). And I agree that it’s best to just remain silent..

    Jesus being our greatest example either remained silent or answered fools (not according to their folly) but usually with a question. He never answered folly.

    • I’m having a little trouble understanding your position, Linda. When you say, “And I agree that it’s best to just remain silent,” aren’t you saying that sometimes it’s best to not answer a fool at all, because (perhaps in a particluar situation) any answer would be to answer him in his folly? If so, I think we agree. If not, could you try to help me understand better?

      • Linda Mac Donald

        Mike,I apologize because I didn’t phrase it correctly.

        What I’m saying is it’s sometimes best to just be silent and say nothing if we don’t know how to answer.

        What I’m also saying is the Proverb does not say we cannot answer a fool, it says do not answer a fool- “according to his folly.” I used to think when I read this proverb that it meant we could not answer a fool (at all). But it doesn’t say that. We can answer a fool but NOT according to his folly.

        Mike-You said after reading the verse “Yet there are other times when we indeed must answer a fool (according to his folly,) lest he be wise in his own eyes. ” I don’t understand what you’re saying because you’re saying to do the very thing the verse tells us NOT TO do. In other words the way I’m reading it and I could be wrong is we CAN answer a FOOL but not according to his folly or we will be like him.
        I hope I’ve delineated some with what I mean. Please correct me where I’m misunderstanding the verse or you… Thanks

        • Thanks for trying to clarify Linda.

          So Proverbs 26:4-5 read like this:

          4. Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.
          5. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.

          That’s the ESV. It’s an accurate representation of the Hebrew text(which the NASB obscures by trying to reinterpret the second line as “as his folly deserves”). They are entirely parallel; the only difference is that verse 4 is a prohibition and verse 5 is a positive command. But they concern the same thing. And it’s not just “answering a fool” that’s in question, but the whole phrase: “answering a fool according to his folly.” So, verse 4 says don’t answer a fool according to his folly, and verse 5 says do answer a fool according to his folly. It doesn’t say, “Answer a fool, just not according to his folly.” That would seem to indicate a weakness in the interpretation you’ve provided.

          So, unless we’re willing to admit that the Bible has contradicted itself in consecutive sentences, we need to recognize that the writer of Proverbs is trying to get us to reflect on what he means. He seems to be saying that there are certain situations in which answering a fool according to his folly would cause you to become foolish like him. He wants us not to answer in those situations. Also, there are certain situations in which answering a fool according to his folly is necessary, because if you don’t, he’ll think he’s right and will be further confirmed in his folly. I think the point is that wisdom (the theme of Proverbs) is to dictate when we’re in one situation or the other.

          I should say, too, that not answering a fool according to his folly (i.e., v. 24) means simply remaining absolutely silent or just walking away from the conversation without comment. Not answering might look like not chasing a particular rabbit trail. If someone accused Christians of simply trying to control other people, or simply hating homosexuals, or being out of accord with the latest scientific discovery about reverse microwaves in the expanding universe, I might choose not to refute every single point, but rather focus the conversation back on their falling short of God’s standard and the reality of their conscience accusing them of their sin. Not answering might also look like telling someone who is particularly hostile and belligerent something like: “If you’re going to continue raising your voice, cutting me off, and being insulting, perhaps it’s best that we don’t continue the conversation. I’ll be sure to pray for you.”

          In other situations, it would be helpful to answer particularly foolish statements so that people don’t go away thinking that their bad arguments really present a material problem for Christianity. For example, in response to the Cosmological argument (i.e., everything has a cause), unbelievers often ask, “Well then who made God?” as if that throws us into the twilight zone. Rather than remaining silent and letting them think they’ve actually presented a real problem for our faith, we can just answer: God is the uncaused cause, the uncreated Creator. He is eternal, and so is without cause, and that’s part of what makes Him God. Or sometimes you hear the shellfish/mixing fabrics objection, and I think there’s an answer for that.

          So anyway, that’s the kind of thing I was getting at with that comment on Proverbs 26:4-5. Does that help at all?

          • Linda Mac Donald

            Ahhhh, you have corrected me with the word of God. I was in error…

            Thanks Mike. I completely left out the second part of Proverbs–5. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”

  • Jeremy

    Hello Mike,

    Great post, and some good points were made. I’ve long maintained that apologetics should not be moved into evangelism, since they are two different things that should not be confused with each other. Whereas apologetics is a defense, evangelism is a proclamation. Your post, though, got me to start rethinking my position.

    You wrote,

    “In Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees in Matthew 12, we see Him
    contradicting a claim that does not correspond to reality (12:24) by
    reasoned arguments. He reduces their argument to absurdity (12:25–26),
    shows them to be inconsistent (12:27), and offers His miracles as proof
    that He is King (12:28). Each of these components provide insight into a
    biblical apologetic methodology.”

    I wonder about using passages like this as a blueprint for apologetics. If we use Jesus’ response in this passage as a model, should we also use his response to unbelievers in John 8? Here is that passage:

    39 They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, 40 but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. 41 You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. 43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. 46 Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? 47 Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”

    Although Jesus does use a rational argument in this passage to respond to them, he also resorts to some pretty direct, stern statements. He calls them liars and murderers by comparing them to Satan; says that the devil is their father; says they cannot bear to hear his word; and says they are not of God. To be consistent, should we resort to this kind of response when engaging unbelievers in conversation?

    Just something to think about.


    • Hey Jeremy, thanks for your comment. I’m glad to get you thinking. 🙂

      I would agree that we need to be cautious about using narrative interactions as blueprints for anything. I want to be careful not to prescribe where Scripture merely describes. But in handling Matthew 12, I’ve not just said, “Jesus did this, so we should do what He did,” as much as I’ve tried to draw out principles which we can apply with wisdom according to the need of the moment. And so I do think it’s significant that Jesus reasons, employs reductio ad absurdum, demonstrates logical inconstistencies, and offers proof for His claims.

      To answer your question regarding John 8, if we keep the same M.O. as I used in Matthew 12 — i.e., apply principles from the interaction in context, not just repeat what was said — I definitely think we can learn from Jesus’ interaction with the Jews and make application to the way we engage some unbelievers.

      If someone was particularly and openly antagonistic against Christianity, and wisdom dictated that it was right to continue the conversation (see my remarks on Proverbs 26:4-5), I think it could be right to show them that their failure to apprehend the truth of Christianity stems from their immorality and the fact that they are a slave to sin (“of their father the devil,” as it were). If someone claimed to be right with God (claimed God as their faither, as it were) for some reason, I think it could be reasonable to say that if you love God you will love the Son whom He sent. And we could make more applications for particular instances.
      Hope that’s helpful.

      • Okay, it sounds like you’re drawing principles from Jesus’ interaction with those who opposed him, rather than trying to use an exact blueprint. I can live with that. 🙂

        I’m still on the fence about the place that apologetics has in evangelism. I know that Paul used reasoning with the Jews in synagogues, and he also did so with the
        Athenians (Acts 17). In both cases he used what his audience knew. In the case of the Jews, it was the Scriptures; in the case of the Athenians, it was their deep religious tendency, their objects of worship, and writings from their own authors. Eventually he pointed out their sin of idolatry. He used their own writings to conclude, “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” So there is definitely reasoning there, but not a whole lot. He ends up simply proclaiming the true God and Christ, Jesus’ resurrection, the command to believe and repent. So he actually makes a quick leap from “don’t worship idols” to all those other specifics of the gospel. So there wasn’t a whole lot of reasoning there.

        I bring this up to point out that I think we need to be careful how much we rely on apologetics in evangelism. Paul’s evangelism on Mars Hill consisted of what seems to me to have been a balance of reasoning combined with bold proclamation that he did not attempt to prove or support (Christ, the resurrection, etc.).

        Regarding the law, which another poster brought up, I’ve had that discussion with a friend who is very big on WotM, and I would point out Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill as an example that using the law does not apply in every evangelistic encounter. Paul certainly addressed their sin of idolatry, which is a violation of a commandment, but he did not actually quote the law or even allude to it. What this tells me is that we need always to address sin when we present the gospel, but that addressing of sin depends on our audience. If we are preaching in an area that has a lot of bars and night life, we could highlight the sin of carousing, dissipation, sexual immorality, and the like. If we were doing outreach in a rich area, we could highlight the sins of greed and idolatry (since greed IS idolatry). And so on.


        • Thanks Jeremy. I think much of this will depend on how you define apologetics. You mention Paul boldly proclaiming without attempting to prove or support the resurrection, for example. Based on this, I’m assuming you would view “relying on apologetics” as trying to make the scientific case for resurrection. If that’s so, I would agree with you that it falls to us to proclaim. After all, as I said above, no amount of evidence will convince a blind man.

          But I think it hinges on how you define apologetics. Tomorrow’s post will take up that topic. So be sure to stay tuned! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

          I think we’re on the same page, though, about the primacy of proclamation in evangelism. That doesn’t mean avoiding reasoning, since the very Scripture we preach itself reasons. But you’re right to note that evangelism shouldn’t boil down to trying to win an argument.

          • I view apologetics as a defense, so that would include defense in its various forms: scientific, historical, rational, etc. I view evangelism as a proclamation. I agree that the two can be combined to some degree. I think what I’ve seen in many churches today, however, is too much of a reliance on apologetics and not enough reliance on the Holy Spirit working with and through the gospel. And such an imbalance also reflects an unbiblical doctrine of man (a denial of total depravity, e.g., Man’s mind is not fallen, so I can convince him with intellectual proof). I’m not saying you’re going to that degree; it’s just what I have noticed over the years in many churches. There seems to be this prevalent way of thinking that if you can just line up the right proofs and the right arguments, then the natural man will agree with the gospel, gladly submit to its demands, and repent, but like I said, I think that stems from a lack of realizing just how radically depraved the natural man is.

          • I’m right with you, Jeremy. I think that’s definitely a problem, and I think you’ll appreciate tomorrow’s and Friday’s posts. There is actually a school of apologetics that critiques a lot of what passes for apologetics on a popular level, and that takes the depravity of man very seriously in its methodology, such that their apologetic methodology is precisely to rely on the Holy Spirit. Stick around. I think you’ll enjoy it.

          • SLIMJIM

            Hey brother Jeremy,
            Would you also say there is a role for apologetics as offense, such as refutation of someone’s belief that is contrary to Scripture?

  • Hey Mike, great article. I will be referring back to this in the future in a class I teach. I was wondering what you think about using the WOTM approach as a apologetic method. I don’t want to open this can of worms again, but, as you inferred, many unbelievers will deny general revelation. Therefore, using the law to prove to the sinner that he does have a conscience I think is very useful in at least defending a biblical anthropology. I guess what I’m trying to ask is, do you think the law (Ex 20) is foundation for apologetic method?

    • I think that WOTM can be a valuable tool in the toolbox of an evangelistic strategy, but that it’s not a full-orbed apologetic method (nor does it intend to be). I think it’s absolutely necessary to address the conscience of the unbeliever. The conscience is an ally in our evangelism. I wouldn’t say that I try to prove to the sinner that he has a conscience, but I do try to actually aim directly at the conscience with the Word of God. I’m not trying to get him to understand, “I have a sense of right and wrong,” as much as: “In my heart, I know what I’m doing is wrong.”

      So yeah, I think that showing the sinner the standard of righteousness of which they (we all) fall short (Rom 3:23) is a necessary way to engage. I wouldn’t define “the law” as identical to Exodus 20, as you do in your final line there. But yes, we want to make the sinner aware of God’s standard of perfection, and then preach the message about Christ by which faith comes (Rom 10:17), the word of truth by which we are born again (Jas 1:18; 1 Pet 1:23-25).

      • Guest

        Thanks for responding. I guess what I appreciate about appealing to an unbeliever’s conscience is as an apologetic tool is to show how the Scri[ture is absolutley true and universal.

        • I think I gotcha. So you mean something like: “Scripture says you have a conscience. I just showed you how that’s true. So you can see that Scripture is true” -kinda thing?

          • Yeah. Sorry about my last comment. I tried to delete it, but couldn’t which is why it appears as a “Guest” comment. Funny thing is that, despite my incomplete and grammatically erroneous statement, you picked up on what I was trying to communicate. What you stated is where I was going. If an atheist/pagan says there is no universal law and no absolute truth because we evolved by mere random chance, then, to be consistent, there truly would be no reason the believe in a law-giver because there is no law to follow and truth is relative. But how does an unbeliever explain that people everywhere KNOW it’s wrong to steal, for example (Ex. 20:15; Eph 4:28)? The answer we would give (I think?) is that since our conscience testifies to the same universal law that everyone, for the most part, agrees with, there had to have been a supreme Law-Giver that established that law. Therefore, what the Bible teaches in Rom 2 should at least cause the unbeliever to think twice…or continue on living in submission to the conscience that originated from nowhere. They’re at the very least confronted with the question of “How do we KNOW what is right and wrong?” The answer is Rom 2:14-16. Pastor John once said, “If you believe in sin, you have to believe in law. If you believe in law, you have to believe in a law giver.” I guess in short, don’t you think general revelation is a useful apologetic tool? That’s, at least in part, what WOTM launches from.

  • Mike, thanks for this article. It is very helpful to me. I have long struggled with the “tension” between presuppositional and classical apologetics. Do I correctly see in this that presupposition is the proper “foundation” or “framework” for apologetics, while the evidences are one of many tools that may be rightly used in support of biblical argument?

    • My pleasure, Lanny. Thank you for your encouragement.

      I think you’ll find that a full-orbed answer to your question will come in tomorrow’s and Friday’s posts. So I hope you’ll stay tuned as well. 🙂

      But to briefly answer your question: I would say that’s right, though I would say that Scripture (or Truth, or Reality), not presupposition in general, is the proper foundation for apologetics. We simply presuppose that Truth is true, and work from there.


      I know your question is for Mike and not for me, but if Mike would allow me to have my 2 cent…I think you right on Lanny, that Presuppositionalism as opposed to other school of apologetics is more concern with the “framework” for apologetics. This does not mean no evidence in apologetics as some seem to suggests. However, one’s framework or worldview will shape how one interpret and marshal evidence. Here’s a link that might interest you: http://veritasdomain.wordpress.com/2012/11/17/van-til-evidence-and-philosophy-of-evidence/

  • brad

    Good points Mike! I will be studying these points and I will try to use them in my conversations with unbelievers. On a practical level, I just try to meet people at the park and on the streets and I just invite them into my home. I love them and tell them that they are sinners and need Jesus. I also think listening to them, praying and fasting for them, and inviting them into community is important.

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