In an article titled “Insights for Apologetics from Other Disciplines,” I focused on a number of things, but essentially, the necessity of good questions so as to (1) gain information from our opponents, (2) expose weaknesses in their arguments, (3) better understand what their objections are, and (4) ensure that we are discussing the real issues involved rather than missing the point. This skill is crucial to engage others even when we do not fully understand how to answer their objections. It is also helpful to convince others that we are truly listening to them. In this present article I will be drawing some important insights from a book, Relational Apologetics: Defending the Christian Faith with Holiness, Respect and Truth, while explaining what I take to be another critical step in proper training for apologetics, and then impart some lessons to be learned.
This book, authored by Michael Sherrard, has captured my attention, not because it is a heavy apologetic treatise or because it is particularly deep in philosophical reasoning. Instead, the book aims to be much more practical than many and it deals more with the attitudes and actions of the apologist rather than the various arguments used in support of Christianity. This is not to say that such reasoning is not found in the book, with some of the better examples being found in section 3, under the title, “What You Know.” The book is 160 pages in length, with questions and an annotated bibliography comprising the material from pages 141 to the end. So, the actual material itself consists of a short 130 pages of text. It is divided into four parts as follow: (1) Who You Are; (2) What You Do; (3) What You Know; and (4) Where You Go. Most books have strengths and weaknesses, and this one is no exception. For instance, he argues that relativism is virtually dead in this treatise. In his section entitled, “The Death of Reason” he says “now relativism is fading because it is not useful” (75). He then announces: “Our culture no longer declares that we all have personal truths. Instead, people are speaking in absolute terms again. There are clearly ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to view a variety of societal issues. Relativism was merely a bridge to take the West from the Christian worldview to another. The bridge has been crossed and relativism is dead” (75).
I think Sherrard has drastically overstated the case. Relativists have always been inconsistent, and relativism has always been self-defeating as a position. Both A. G. N. Flew and Wallace Matson, in their debates with Thomas B. Warren, inconsistently took an absolutist position in condemning the Nazis for their attempted genocide of the Jewish people in WWII. Their atheistic positions could not justify taking any position but that of relativism. Yet, neither man could bring himself to giving the Nazi’s a pass in their murder of millions of innocent victims. They condemned such behavior as absolutely wrong. This, of course, was inconsistent with their atheism. Therefore, Sherrard’s statement that “people are speaking in absolute terms again” is not a new thing, nor has it ever been otherwise.
Given the overwhelming influence of Postmodernism in western culture today, with its relativistic-subjectivism, I cannot agree with Sherrard that relativism is dead in the hearts and minds of people in our society today. Beyond this potential weakness, Sherrard has included an extremely important short chapter entitled, “Stick with What You Know.” I want to share some of that with you in this article.
Sherrard said, with reference to religion:
. . . [D]espite the claims and wishes of our culture, Christians reject the notion that all religions are the same. Consequently, we are called arrogant, narrow-minded, and judgmental--a funny criticism from people who consider themselves tolerant. Ironically, people who label Christians judgmental for thinking they are right do not consider themselves judgmental for thinking Christians are wrong. What the land of “tolerance” cannot tolerate is Christianity’s exclusivity.
Telling people that Jesus is the only way will be met with opposition. It is a deeply engrained lie that “all roads lead to heaven.” But all roads don’t lead to heaven any more than all roads lead to your house. All religions are not the same. After you have shown that there is good evidence to believe in God, you must be able to tell your friends that Jesus is the only way to Him.
I think it is obvious to most people that all religions cannot be the same. Most people live in the land of black and white, right and wrong. Most people agree that if I tell you to take a left to get to my house and my wife tells you to go right, one of us is wrong. Likewise, most people understand that if Christians believe there is one God, and Hindus believe that there are millions of gods, and atheists believe there are no gods, and Mormons believe that you can become a god, then somebody is wrong.
Competing truth claims cannot be equally valid. Earth cannot be both round and flat at the same time. (91)
When we are busily engaged in the work of apologetics, we must never forget that our mission is ultimately to introduce people to Jesus the Christ. Even though apologetics is “pre-evangelistic” (this means, that it clears away obstacles to belief), it is also a necessary part of fulfilling the Great Commission (cf. Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; etc.).
In connection with his chapter entitled “Evil and the Problem of Pain,” Sherrard offers an insight that I had not really thought much about prior to reading his comments. While discussig our need to offer comfort to those who are grieving, regardless of the cause of their grief, he states:
. . . [T]here actually is comfort in that fact that God is the kind of God who allows bad things to happen to good people: if God did not allow bad things to happen to good people, He never would have allowed Jesus, an innocent and good man, to suffer and die on the cross, and we would be of all people most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:19). I am grateful that God allowed the worst evil possible to come upon the best person ever--for no wrongdoing of His own.
This is comforting because, though I may not understand why God does not prevent more pain on earth, I know that He Himself has experienced the deepest pain. More importantly, His pain made the way for us to be saved from pain forever. It comforts people to know that God knows pain. In such comfort, they will be more likely to see that God uses pain for good. Hope is found in knowing that pain is not necessarily gratuitous. (106, emp. added)
In spite of the fact that we know pain and suffering are not intrinsically evil, but only instrumentally so, it still remains true that God the Son (if not the entire Godhead--Father and Spirit also) experienced great anguish and pain in the sacrificial atonement of crucifixion. This is an insight that I had not thought much about prior to reading this book.
Earlier I mentioned a part of this book that had me intrigued. It is a short six-page chapter entitled, “Stick with What You Know.” Sherrard considers this the second best piece of advice he ever received in learning how to defend the faith (cf. 70). The first was in asking good questions (which I covered in my earlier article “Insights”). Sherrard says correctly that, “the more you say, the more you have to defend” (66). His problem is with people who pass themselves off as experts because they actually say much more than they are really capable of affirming. So, this is the third part of this article. Sherrard states in this connection:
The problem is not what we know, but how we use it. It is good to read books. It is good to learn how the universe and its design are indications that God exists. But often these bits of knowledge inflate our sense of expertise and cause us to say more than we can defend. . . . The authority and superiority of the Christian worldview does not need you to bolster its case by presenting yourself as something other than you are. What is more likely to happen is that your dishonest representation will undermine your claims. (67)
This is not an attempt to keep everyone silent, or to cause us to be afraid to speak up at all. Sherrard says: “The more you say in an argument, the more you have to defend. When you make a claim, you are responsible to support what you say” (68). As an example, he refers to a claim relative to the historical reliability of the Bible.
So how do we use the knowledge we have and avoid getting in trouble by acting like an expert? Here is what I suggest. Let’s use the previous example. If you can’t defend the historical reliability of the Bible, don’t bring it up. If someone asks you about it, that’s another matter. And in that case you have two options.
One option is to say, “I don’t know.” “I don’t know” is a much safer and effective response than saying something that is wrong or can’t be supported. Not knowing something shows only that you don’t know everything, but being wrong shows that you draw bad conclusions from data. This hurts the gospel because it allows the skeptic to assume that if you’re wrong about the Bible’s historical reliability, you’re likely also wrong about things like the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Another option, and I think a better one, is to say what you think and then offer to study the topic with the skeptic. In the present scenario, you could say something like, “I believe that the Bible has been proven to be historically reliable. I have read that it was, but I’m no expert. I would love to learn more about it. Would you want to study it with me?
By asking to study something with your friend, you have accomplished two things. First, you haven’t come across like an expert. Instead you appear humble and honest. . . .
Second, if your friend says yes, you have established a relationship that will be ongoing. Many people act like snipers in conversations with skeptics: one shot and they’re out. However, we should treat conversations like mountain climbing, a long process that requires careful steps and great preparation. (68-69)
The building of relationships is true in any form of personal evangelism, including one that involves the important work of apologetics. Avoiding the problem of appearing to be an expert without actually being one, speaks to the need for training. There are a couple of ways to go about this: (1) seek out those who are better trained than yourself (such as many of those associated with the Warren Center); and (2) seek out opportunities to become better informed in strategy for engaging in these important conversations. Thomas B. Warren, for whom Warren Christian Apologetics Center is named, recognized this early on as he was training many of us to be aware of these things. When he began The Institute for the Advancement of Christian Theism (I-ACT), he discovered a large number of people, some of whom were being trained by him, but others who had not been taught by him, had particular strengths that were needed to form such a group effort to respond to current issues. Today, the Warren Center seeks in many ways to perpetuate the concept of this important work.
Sherrard concludes his thoughts in this important chapter:
Understand that there are no magic words to defend your faith other than the gospel. The gospel has the power to break through anything and save. The power of the Holy Spirit is unparalleled, but your words are not. Don’t think that one impressive statistic or fact is going to overpower years of rebellion and skepticism. So don’t stretch what you know and make claims you can’t back up.
Sticking with what you know is the second best piece of advice I have ever received in terms of defending the faith. . . . It shows that you are a reasonable person, one who is not prone to overreacting and making foolish decisions based on wrong information. It makes you credible, forcing the skeptic to wonder if you are right. If you can’t be proven wrong, and skeptics are honest, they will reconsider their position. (70)
Finally, I want to set forth some lessons for our learning. First, we all need to understand that, while we each have our own particular strengths to contribute to this work, none of us can do what needs to be done alone. We need to work as a team. This might mean seeking out others who are attempting to do the same sort of work, but who are not “of us” (cf. Mark 9:38-40). Doing the same sort of work for the same reasons, we can often pool our efforts for greater effectiveness. This is what Dr. Warren did with his I-ACT concept. Second, there are a number of people who are interested in the work of apologetics, but they are not quite sure how to go about it. It is one thing to take a few classes and to read a few books. It is quite another to have a strategy for success. This sometimes calls for specialized training, and we need to consider this as well. Third, just as we need to take our convictions beyond the front doors of our buildings, we also need to acquaint people with the valuable resource material needed to make them aware of the cultural issues that can steal away the hearts of people, giving Satan a victory. The apostle Paul said that we prepare ourselves “so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes” (2 Corinthians 2:11). “I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3). Instead, we need to heed the following strategy: “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. 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 Corinthians 10:3-5).
Bringing “every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” is our mission, whether one is highly trained as an apologist, a personal evangelist, or as a member of the church. This is simply another way of stating the Great Commission, while, at the same time, making it relevant to the contents of this article (cf. Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Acts 1:8; etc.). It is my hope that this article serves as a motivator to encourage involvement in the work of apologetics, and to help us do this important work.
Sherrard, Michael C., Relational Apologetics: Defending the Christian Faith with Holiness, Respect and Truth. 2012. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2015.