Regarding Apologetics, an Apology

Author Greg Koukl Published on 02/28/2013

If we shouldn’t use arguments to promote the Gospel—because it’s leaning on human wisdom and not God—then what are we to say?

I have been challenged a number of times recently on the use of intellectual arguments and rational suasion in the defense of the gospel. In other words, the whole idea of Christian apologetics is called into question as being unbiblical. Two verses are usually offered as proof texts:

1 Corinthians 2:4–5 “And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.”

2 Timothy 2:24 “And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome...”

And so with regard to apologetics—making a rational defense for the gospel—let me make an apology—a defense.

I’ll tell you how I deal with verses like these. First, I take a look at the verses in context and see if that helps clarify anything. “But why clarify anything?” you might ask. “The verses themselves are clear enough. It’s plain as day. Just read them.”

This brings me to a second element. It’s a principle called “the analogy of faith.” It’s also referred to as interpreting the unclear in light of the clear. The point of the analogy of faith is we presume God isn’t going to say one thing in one place that contradicts what he says in another. (And if you’re not inclined to think that God is speaking here, if you want to leave God out of it, would it be fair to say that men like Paul are reasonably intelligent human beings and are not going to contradict themselves from page to page? It is fair to concede to them that they are reasonably careful and unified in their thinking? I think so.)

So the task is to give the text the benefit of the doubt and try to find a way to reconcile what appears on the surface to be a contradiction. And that’s why you can’t just seize on these two verses and say, “It’s so clear.” because it’s not clear this is the biblical teaching when you take other texts into consideration.

Take, for example, 1 Peter 3:14,15. Peter is speaking here and says, “And do not fear their intimidation and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your heart always being ready to make an apologeo (a defense) to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you. Yet with gentleness and reverence.”

So here it seems like Peter is commanding us to use apologetics. And if the Scripture has God as its ultimate author, would Peter writing under inspiration contradict what Paul is also writing under inspiration?

Acts 17:2–4 “And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.’ And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas...”

Colossions 4:5–6 “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person.”

Both Paul and Peter argued from the Old Testament (as did Jesus) using the Scriptures to make a reasonable defense for Jesus as Messiah. What are they doing? They’re saying, “Look, the Scriptures prophesied the resurrection of the Messiah. Jesus rose from the dead. Therefore, Jesus is the Messiah.” That’s using reason, rationality.

“No, that’s using Scripture. It’s different.” Is it? Even though one of the elements of this argument is a verse, that by itself explains nothing. Even a Scriptural quotation doesn’t do any work for you if it’s not a chunk of a reasonable argument. Quoting a verse is really only shorthand for a more lengthy argument. The full argument goes like this: The Bible predicted Jesus’ resurrection before it happened. Mere man couldn’t do that. That’s supernatural. The fact that Jesus rose from the dead proves His claim to be God and the Bible’s claim to be the word of God.

Let me give you another argument. The Psalmist says, “The heavens tell of the glory of God, and the firmament speaks forth His praise.” What you have here is a cosmological argument for the existence of God, a reason for God’s existence based on the existence of the world.

Paul argues in Romans chapter 2 that the law of God is written on the hearts of men even though they don’t have the Law, the Bible, in front of them. This is a moral argument for the existence of God. Paul says we observe morality built into man. This is evidence that there’s a moral God who is the moral lawmaker of the universe and we’re accountable to Him. Paul says you don’t even need the Bible to prove that.

Both Paul and the Psalmist are arguing philosophically based on the existence of particular things—the universe or morals. God must exist as an adequate explanation for these things. The fact is that Paul and others in the Bible actually argued philosophically.

The same applies to Jesus. Jesus argued with the Pharisees all the time. Even His enemies reported that “no man speaks as this man speaks.” If Jesus merely relied on the power of God and the particulars of His speech were inconsequential, if His mind and intellect and cleverness didn’t enter into it, then why don’t we behold unimpressive, muddled, uncompelling words in His discourses? No, it was quite the opposite.

When we look further in the New Testament we see heated and intense disputation—polemic, argumentation—at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. We see Paul going after Peter hammer and tongs in Galatians 2:11.

You can immediately see the problem with any interpretation of a verse to the effect that one must not use reason and rationality in the proclamation of the Gospel. Such a person runs smack into an army of counterexamples from the Scripture itself.

There are other problems. Such an approach makes it virtually impossible to contend for the Gospel. When one contends for something he gives reasons why a person ought to adopt his viewpoint, in this case believe a particular thing, the Gospel. Clearly the Apostles did this, as did Jesus.

Even if you say, “God said it, therefore you ought to believe it”—which I think is a rather shallow apologetic—it still is apologetics employing reason. What’s the reason? “If God said it, then it must be true and you’re obliged to believe it and obey it, because God is God.” That’s a reason; that’s apologetics.

There’s another problem, and it’s a practical one. I’m not supposed to seek to be clever or persuasive or to use arguments to convince, apparently. Then what am I to do? If we shouldn’t use arguments to promote the Gospel—because it’s leaning on human wisdom and not God—then what are we to say? What do I say then when communicating my faith? If I’m not supposed to seek to be clever or persuasive or to use arguments to convince, then what am I to do? Should I work at being clear when I communicate? Or should I try to be muddled lest I depend on clarity and not the Spirit to make the difference? Should I give reasons for what I believe or only gently make assertions with a smile on my face being careful not to respond to challenges someone might raise lest it sound like I’m trying to argue for the Gospel and not depend on the Holy Spirit?

Maybe we should just say, “Believe in Jesus” once and leave it at that, then let God do the rest? In fact, if it’s just the power of God, then why speak at all? God certainly doesn’t need my words. Ought we not, to be safe (if this line of argument is valid) not say anything, but simply point at a verse? Then there’s virtually nothing we’re doing that could be construed as helping the process, except maybe pointing accurately.

You see friends, this argument simply proves too much. It makes a virtue out of being dull, boring, muddled, and obscure in our communication. It disallows us from doing anything that might present the Gospel in a clear and convincing light. This isn’t a point of view that can really be practiced. When taken at face value it becomes virtually impossible to apply.

This isn’t the biblical position at all. It also doesn’t seem to square with the actual behavior of those we see in the New Testament. Paul was intelligent, clear, clever, and persuasive.

But didn’t Paul count all his learning to be dung (Philippians 3)? Well, yes and no. Yes, he counted everything dung compared to knowing Jesus. Yes, his great learning was nothing to him compared with knowing Christ. But even his love for other people was nothing, his Scriptural knowledge was nothing, his personal piety and holiness were nothing, his tremendous obedience on behalf of Christ was nothing. All were dung too, by comparison. In this passage Paul is simply comparing anything and everything else to the value of knowing Christ. In that sense they’re all dung. But in the broader sense they are not worthless, and in fact Paul employed those other things aggressively and effectively for the cause of Christ. So my point about Paul stands.

1 Corinthians 2:4–5 “And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.”

My first thought when people approach me with things like this is, “If the Scripture says we’re not to argue, then why are you arguing with me?” These folks approached me three different times on this. Why wasn’t once enough, merely stating the truth as they saw it and then trusting that the Holy Spirit would work? And they didn’t just drop a word and let the Spirit take over. They were kind, but they were persistent, seeking to convince me of their point of view.

We’re still faced with the question, “What about the verses? What do they mean?”

2 Timothy 2:24 “And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome...”

As far as the 2 Timothy passage is concerned, Paul tells Timothy not to be quarrelsome, that is, don’t be contentious and petty. He didn’t say not to have arguments in the sense of having intelligent disputations on important issues. In fact, he says the opposite: “with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition” so that they may “come to their senses” (2 Timothy 2:25–26). Later he challenges Timothy to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2).

What did Paul mean when he said in 1 Corinthians 2:4–5 that “my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power”? This one’s a little more difficult.

First, it may be that, in the case of the Corinthians, this is precisely the way he proceeded, that he presented the simple Gospel coupled with displays of power to persuade them. But he is not giving a blanket guideline for all occasions.

Second, he may have been referring to the foolishness of the content compared to reigning Greek philosophies, as he mentioned just a few moments earlier:

1 Corinthians 1:18–24 “For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

Finally, he didn’t mean that we shouldn’t characteristically seek to be persuasive. How do I know? Because he spoke contrary to that view in other passages and he and Jesus and many others in the Scriptures actually modeled something different.

And that’s my method: to stand for the truth as persuasively, intelligently, clearly and carefully as I can with kindness and gentleness and trust God to work in the process.

As the wisdom of Proverbs puts it: “The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but victory belongs to the Lord” (Proverbs 21:31). We need to prepare ourselves for battle, but when it’s won, the victory is the Lord’s.