Apologetics at first blush is a misnamed discipline. Why would someone need to apologize for being a Christian? What it is though is a field of study to be able to explain the faith to those who do not have the faith. As Vincent Cheung in Presuppositional Confrontations (2003) defines success in the endeavour “success in apologetics and evangelism should be measured by whether we have presented Christianity faithfully and defended it cogently” (p.77).
From a Reformation Theological background Cheung structures a learned guide for how one is to build an apologetic for the faith. This apologetic however does not exist within a vacuum but is the basis for evangelism. The driving force for this joining of offices is his opening Biblical example of Acts 17 when St. Paul enters the Athenian temple and begins a discourse with the philosophers. For Cheung this is the mirror of how to do apologetics and evangelism as a believer (p.3). It is a calling not on a few, but on all.
This is the mirror that should reflect in the church to show us as believers how to engage a world that is non-Christian or post-Christian. This short paper will touch on the route of evangelism-apologetics as laid out by Cheung in his work of 2003 Presuppositional Confrontations.
What is apologetics? It is the discipline of explaining the nature of reality to those who do not believe in the “science” of theology. For Cheung his undergirding is that all arguments can be settled by appealing to the soundness of first (biblical) principles (p.3). This is opened up even further by his touching upon Acts 17 and St. Paul’s discourse with the Philosophers where he points to the unknown God and uses this as an inroad to lay out the Christian apologetic.
The concept for Cheung is then followed up by a “modern” example of viewing a sports game, with no knowledge of the rules we may be able to enjoy watching, but we will be lost to the subtleness of what is truly happening between the players (p.4), one just has to attempt to watch Cricket or Baseball with no background/fore knowledge and you can experience this, yes it is enjoyable, but there is no clue about what is actually happening. For the viewer it is not even safe to use strictly observation to craft understanding of the rules because it can lead to an in correct understanding (p.5), much like as Cheung points out using science out of context to explain the nature (how) of reality (Cheung p. 12).
For Cheung there is a divisible line in the sand for apologetics where within this practice it is the wisdom of God versus the wisdom of man (p.39) and notes that divine revelation will always be superior if not accepted (p. 39). The gate for Cheung continues to narrow as he lays bare that inter-faith dialogue seeking similarities and common ground are ignorant of Christian theology (Cheung p.40) and continues that Christians who reject the Biblical texts are not Christian (p.41).
The emerging Cornerstone for Cheung is that evangelism-apologetics must avoid finding ways to agree with anti-biblical thinking (p.42) as the Biblical framework is the only true intellectual framework (p.53). The understanding of this framework leads to a counter-apologetics where the Christian should demand the presuppositions being used by the non-Christian for them wanting to hold to evolution and anti-biblical worldview (p.53). It is Cheung’s call then that the evangelistic-apologist must be a scholar, as the mirror for his practice is St. Paul who clearly shows in Acts 17 that he is a scholar of the world (Cheung p. 57).
Growing from this the gate of truth is narrowed even more to the ideal that biblical apologetics involves exposing the internal contradictions of non-Christian religions and philosophies because scripture is clear that all non-believers (even Jews) are hell bound (Cheung pp. 59-63). This is why evangelism and apologetics go hand in hand to win (convert) believers to Christ.
Cheung used the mirror of St. Paul’s discourse with the philosophers to lay out how to do evangelism-apologetics. From this discourse Cheung drew down to a very narrow, Reformationist understanding of faith. As such, the interpretation section of this paper will open with an exploration of the mirror chapter as presented in the New Living Translation (please note the scripture passage has been italicized with the author’s thoughts interspersed in normal typeface):
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply troubled by all the idols he saw everywhere in the city. 17 He went to the synagogue to reason with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and he spoke daily in the public square to all who happened to be there.
Paul begins his teaching journeys as always, with going to those who had a knowledge of the living God, and as such, had a common language. If we are to use this as our mirror, it would appear that the beginning of our dialogues should be with those of the Abrahamic Traditions (Ba’hai, Jewish, Other Christians, Muslim, Mormon, New Thought and to a lesser, Universalist-Unitarian) and to seek out the similarities and common ground within, contrary to Cheung’s disapproval of this venture. It almost appears here from inductive reading that this was the “safe” place of non-believers where Paul was able to learn and grow through some familiarity before heading out into what would be contextual for today as the modern North America.
18 He also had a debate with some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. When he told them about Jesus and his resurrection, they said, “What’s this babbler trying to say with these strange ideas he’s picked up?” Others said, “He seems to be preaching about some foreign gods.”
Since the founding of Quebec in the early 1500’s there has been an assumption by Canadians that we have a common story that bursts forth from a common Christian heritage. Which is why most churches speak of missions, evangelism and never apologetics out there in the 2/3 world. It is these short or long term missions that are to aid us in discovering the “unsaved” or the “heathen” because “Canada is a Christian Nation”. Yes our constitution’s first line reads Under God, but it is a non-sectarian, great creator God, not one of Christian descent or understanding.
What is missed for the Canadian church when we hold up this mirror is the stepping outside of our Christian bubble. There is no common belief within the mosaic of our nation. We are one community built through a unity of communities. As such, we must come to realize that there is no understanding of the Biblical God or more specifically the God of the Christianities. God is as much a foreigner in Canada, and the Japanese Yen would be in one of our convenience stores.
This leads the believer to feel quieted because if they have spent any time within the “safe” zone of the church, then they have come to believe the meta-narrative that we are just a wayward nation in which all know the God of Christ Jesus, when we do not. This is where the practice of apologetics can become useful, unfortunately the way Cheung has put it forth, as noted in the summary, would do more damage to the gospel in a nation where there is a stereo-type of the hateful Christian, not the loving Christ.
19 Then they took him to the high council of the city.[d] “Come and tell us about this new teaching,” they said. 20 “You are saying some rather strange things, and we want to know what it’s all about.” 21 (It should be explained that all the Athenians as well as the foreigners in Athens seemed to spend all their time discussing the latest ideas.)
22 So Paul, standing before the council,[e] addressed them as follows: “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, 23 for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.
24 “He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn’t live in man-made temples, 25 and human hands can’t serve his needs—for he has no needs. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and he satisfies every need. 26 From one man[f] he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries.
27 “His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. 28 For in him we live and move and exist. As some of your[g] own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ 29 And since this is true, we shouldn’t think of God as an idol designed by craftsmen from gold or silver or stone.
30 “God overlooked people’s ignorance about these things in earlier times, but now he commands everyone everywhere to repent of their sins and turn to him. 31 For he has set a day for judging the world with justice by the man he has appointed, and he proved to everyone who this is by raising him from the dead.”
The discourse St. Paul takes the Athenians through is one of scholarship. It is within the context of a space of learning, dialogue and sometimes, debate. It is within a space where questions were asked and answered, in the give and take fashion that Socrates made famous upon street corners. As a mirror this event reflects the current inter-faith and inter-religious practices of the 20-21st centuries in which similarities are founded (noted above in which St. Paul opens by pointing to the unknown God Acts 17: 23). For Cheung to then dispute the use of similarities cracks his own mirror.
To continue this disparity Cheung counters that one cannot say Allah & God are the same because to do so would be to state Allah is a Trinity which is contrary to Islamic belief (p. 40). Unfortunately this shows that perhaps Cheung has not truly used the mirror of Acts 17 as usefully as one should. For it is not simply being able to say they are the same, it is coming to this conclusion through discourse with our Islamic brothers and sisters in God. Into a faith where there is already an opening of similarities for discourse on faith, shared history through Abraham, veneration of Mary, Jesus, & John the Baptist.
Are they the same beliefs as held by the Conservative Christian? No. Are they the same held by the Liberal Christian? No. Yet there are kernels that can be used to build discourse upon as St. Paul did with the philosophers here by noting the unknown God and illuminating identity.
32 When they heard Paul speak about the resurrection of the dead, some laughed in contempt, but others said, “We want to hear more about this later.” 33 That ended Paul’s discussion with them, 34 but some joined him and became believers. Among them were Dionysius, a member of the council,[h] a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
Funny, that for Cheung it is about pushing people to name their suppositions so then divine revelation can be used almost as a weapon to attach and discredit (p.59). Yet what Paul shows with this conclusion is a more open and collaborative approach, almost reminiscent of Brother Jesus with the Sermon on the Mount. This is counter to the many assertions Cheung would put forward about science’s inability to explain anything properly (p. 45) or that those that reject a narrow reading of the Bible are non-Christians (p.41). For it is not that science cannot explain things, science when used with proper prayerful reason can illuminate the how of the Creation, while divine revelation from God is there to illuminate the why of the creation. The big questions, and God has equipped His creation with the ability to draw closer to understanding. The challenge is to move beyond this fragmented, dualistic thinking to a more holistic whole. Away from Jacob’s ladder of ascent as Matthew Fox stipulates, to as a creation dancing Sarah’s circle of joy and praise.
For the nuances of the above passage is not one of not taking the bible seriously, it is realizing that as Bishop Spong in his Born of a Woman discourses stipulates that fundamentalists distort the scripture by taking it literally, while liberals do the same by not taking scripture seriously. What we have presented here with St. Paul is the way to come into a story and be present. Within that presence the mirror is removed and it becomes more like a live action role play where we see how to find similarities, and from those similarities build a discourse that then will move from the public meta-narrative, to the smaller discipleship of the few that feel the moving of the Holy Spirit within them igniting that thirst for Christ.
Cheung is right in asserting the evangelism and apologetics need to go together. Unfortunately Cheung falls into his Reformation Church bias, and draws the gate too narrow for God to be revealed within the glory that is God’s creation. St. Paul illuminated to the hearer of the story a multi-pronged approach to being able to create the sacred space where God can be felt. It was through scholarship, which is what apologetics should be.
Unfortunately it is too easily missed that these discourses were not just a brain thing, but rather it was through the traditions of others that led to discovering similarities that then led to open dialogue and speech about the heart of the matter for St. Paul. How would this reflect in today’s Canada that is a mosaic of the world? A true United Nations outside one’s front door, how can one take this narrow “ideal” that Cheung postulate, when Paul did not even see the narrow ideal? Paul sought knowledge, and from knowledge applied Godly wisdom to the discussion.
It is not about not taking the bible seriously, it is about entering into the story. Taking one’s personal/professional learning’s, the same experiences, and prayerfully coming to the scriptures to allow the Holy Spirit to shine meaning through. Then it is taking this personal understanding into a discussion with friends about how your faith is and what their faith is. From that finding the common ground then opens up the ability to share and explain one’s faith within fertile soil, as opposed to a hardened rock wall.
Cheung, V. (2003) Presuppositional Confrontations. Boston, MA, USA: Reformation Ministries International.
- Apologetics is not…. (inchristus.wordpress.com)
- Tim Keller on Apologetics (josiahconcept.org)
- Book Review: Apologetics – By Cornelius Van Til (ellipsisomnibusreviews.wordpress.com)
- Christian Apologetics Ministry Announces Changes to Online Apologetics Academy (prweb.com)
- Elkins guest speaker at annual Online Apologetics Conference on Earth Day (prweb.com)
- Christian Apologetics Academy Launches Revamped Apologetics Certificate Program with Literary Emphasis (prweb.com)
- (Video) Interview with Patrick Madrid – On Catholic Apologetics and the New Atheism (BrandonVogt.com)
- The Task of the Christian Apologist (parchment9.wordpress.com)
- ‘The Case for Christ’ on trial: part I (jeremystyron.com)
- How apologetics relies on a sound understanding of the gospel (winteryknight.wordpress.com)