Friday, August 28, 2009

The Limits of Apologetics

Although various apologetic systems have proved useful, even the best apologetic method must squarely face its limits. While a strong proponent of a thorough and wide-ranging apologetic is sorely needed today, apologetics is bounded by at least three realities.

First, the Bible is a long, ancient, and sometimes perplexing book for contemporary people. Defending what the Bible teaches is no simple task, and certainly does not admit of a formula. Even the stellar apologist must face her intellectual limits and never bluff knowing more than she knows. However, to admit this difficulty is not to revel in mysteries, paradoxes, or (worse yet) absurdities. Rather, we should realize that all of our intellectual endeavors—especially those dealing with the broadest and deepest questions of life’s meaning—will be dogged to some degree by misunderstanding, ignorance, and intellectual disappointment. To hold that the Christian worldview is the best rational explanation for the things that matter most does not imply that we have a lock on all the best arguments or have attained all the truths we need.

Second, apologetics is not only limited by the difficulty of the subject itself, but by the weaknesses of the subjects who practice it—you and I. We commend and defend Christianity through our speech, our writing, and our demeanor. And we are sinners. We are the medium for this matchless message, but we are flawed. The best argument carried forth by a bad character will not likely have the desired effect. We may know strong apologetic arguments, but lack courage to present them, or, conversely, we may confidently offer arguments that we think are strong, but are not. We may study too much and pray too little, or the opposite. And so it goes. Yet we may be thankful that “God can make a straight line with a crocked stick,” as the medieval saying goes.[1] If we fall short as apologists, this does not mean that Christianity is untrue or irrational or that all our efforts are vain. Our job is to faithfully give the best arguments possible from the purest heart possible.

Third, apologetics must be understood within the framework of God’s secret counsels, as Calvinists like to put it.[2] God often does not tell us how or why he brings some things about. As the hymn puts it, “God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.” God may use any means at his disposal, and every means are at his disposal. As the majestic Westminster Confession of Faith puts it, “God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure.”[3] The apologist might be likened to a physician trying to cure an ailment. He can only use the tools of his trade, but he realizes that some people spontaneously recover without treatment and some do not respond well to treatment that should help them. Nevertheless, he does not despair of his task.


[1] See also See Francis Schaeffer, “The Weakness of God’s Servants” in No Little People, No Little Places (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1974), 43-60.
[2] They typically appeal to Deuteronomy 29:29; see also Romans 11:33-36.
[3] Chapter V, section 3.

1 comment:

Larry said...

Thank you for this good reminder; well said. Perhaps this is implied in your third point, or perhaps it merits a separate point, but we might also say that apologetics is limited by the sinful stubbornness of those whom we seek to persuade. Unless the Holy Spirit changes hearts, the very best arguments articulated in the most winsome way will fall on deaf ears. Which, as Francis Schaeffer reminded us, urges upon us the importance of prayer.