Apologetic evangelism: an oxymoron?

[This post is courtesy of Phillip Jensen, Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney.]

Apologetic evangelism is neither apologetics nor evangelism. Since the language of today is apologetic, and certainty is considered arrogance, how then can we evangelise modern, or post-modern, society?

Evangelism is the declaration of the great news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is the announcement of God’s victory in his Son; the proclamation of the coming of the age of salvation. It calls upon people to repent and tells them to trust Jesus for their salvation. It assures them of the full, complete forgiveness that Jesus has won for them and the new life that his Spirit brings them.

There is nothing to apologize for in evangelism. It is the most wonderful news that we will ever have to tell anybody. Judgement over, condemnation passed, sins forgiven, new life commenced, eternity awaiting us as we grow in God’s loving grace.

But today the world accuses those who speak with such confidence, of arrogance. They ask: Who can really speak of knowing the truth that will set you free? Isn’t everything just a matter of opinion and everybody’s opinion of equal worth? At best you can suggest that it “may be worth considering” the view that Jesus died for our sins and rose again for our justification.

So our modern evangelist suggests it with apologies—“I know that it is a view that is old fashioned and caused some considerable strife, dividing communities and even families—but it may be worth pondering.” “I know I can’t prove that it is true, that it’s all a matter of opinion—I am only asking you to ponder the possibility that there may be something in it.”

If we are going to be so bold as to suggest that people should change their religion, shouldn’t we apologise for all the wrong things that our church has done over the centuries? Shouldn’t we assure people that they are every bit as moral as we are and their views have as much, if not more, good points than ours? Isn’t considering Christianity superior pride?

The Lord Jesus warned us not to be ashamed of either him or the gospel. He said to his disciples:

“For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:38)

And the Apostle Paul declared:

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16)

Just as he told his colleague Timothy:

“Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God.” (2 Timothy 1:8)

In the face of boastful Jews and Greeks, Paul was adamant that he was not ashamed of the gospel. Shame did not govern or even affect his decisions in life. He had reason to be ashamed. When he went to Athens he was put down by the philosophers of his day calling him a “babbler” and a “preacher of foreign divinities” and when he explained the resurrection, “some mocked” (Acts 17:18, 32). “Babbler” was an insulting term, referring to the way scavenging birds pick up seeds. It was a way of saying that he was stealing scraps of information and peddling them as his own serious thought or argument. But he knew the righteousness of God that the Gospel revealed—and there was no wavering in his faith that would lead him to be ashamed.

Paul did not apologise for being a Christian but he used apologetics as he preached the gospel. He rejoiced with the Philippians in both the ”defence and confirmation of the gospel” (Phil 1:7). He argued and dialogued with the opponents of the gospel. In Acts, his evangelistic work is described as involving arguing, reasoning and persuading—as for example in Ephesus where “he spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading” in the synagogue and then reasoned daily in the hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:8f). In his relationship with the Corinthians he speaks of destroying “arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” and taking “every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

This was not apologising for dividing the synagogue community or for offending other people’s religion or for calling people callous, greedy and impure (Ephesians 4:19). Paul’s apologetics was not apologising for the gospel or its effects upon people—there was nothing to apologise about in the gospel. His apologetics were a form of arguing and answering objections as he declared the truth of the gospel, and through this he showed the folly of rejecting it or embracing other views. In this he was no different to his saviour, who made no apology for speaking the offensive truth boldly.

In adopting today’s language of humble uncertainty, we may be denying our own message. For we may be agreeing with the moderns’ arrogance that God is answerable to human reason rather than human reason being answerable to God; and confirming the post-moderns’ irrational relativism that everything is just a matter of opinion and God is answerable to me.

Is speaking with humble apology a genuine attempt at “being all things to all people”, or is it a mask for our embarrassment about the Gospel?

It is not triumphalism, but the truth that Jesus liberates us to live different—and better—lives than we were living when we were in “the domain of darkness”.

Evangelism doesn’t simply speak the truth, it also changes lives and societies; from worse to better. It is the “power” of God at work in the world today. No need to apologise for that—just tell people the great news and pray for God’s Spirit to work in them.

9 thoughts on “Apologetic evangelism: an oxymoron?

  1. It’s only an oxymoron if you don’t know what the word “apologetic” means in this case, which seems to be the author’s mistake. We’re not talking about feeling embarrassed or ashamed of our belief. Apologetic refers to being prepared to give an answer for the hope we have within us.

    • I disagree—Phillip knows what apologetics is, as his first sentence demonstrates: “Apologetic evangelism is neither apologetics nor evangelism.” He’s not disputing the fact there is such an endeavour, but is highlighting that the way we do evangelism is often not a concerted defense of what we believe, but timid, concession-bound qualifications.

      (PS – full name please. Ta.)

  2. Maybe superpope is hinting at the author’s clear implication that if you resort to a system of thought stemming from what might be written off as ‘post-modern’, you are in fact not a Christian. You ‘may be denying’ your ‘own message’.

    This seems an implicit ad hominem attack, to link all of post-modern thought with not being a Christian. There seems little qualification to it. I can’t agree with Paul that the meaning is that some apologetics is tainted in this way. It seems fairly broad brush, how could you work out if the apologetic exercise was ‘timid’ and ‘concession-bound’ (ie not Christian) or if it was kosher? Which clergy-man should we accept on this?

    Presumably the author is not actually arguing for the rejection of all post-modern thought, holus bolus, on the basis it might not wholly support orthodox dogma, and thence a return to the good old days where the masses simply accepted the vaunted authority of the bishop, or else? I cannot think of any reason why an Anglican bishop would want to make such an argument off hand.

    I love the statement about ‘the moderns’ arrogance that God is answerable to human reason’. Surely the conservative evangelical applies some form of cognitive function (or reason)? Doesn’t the author use some form of reason to make his argument? Doesn’t accepting a version of biblical infallibility that allows you to for instance quote Paul or quote Jesus to make an argument require some form of cognitive function that would fit within a broad-brush definition of post-modern reason as evil? Thus contravening the principle we have established against avoiding the evils of post-modern reason? How can you separate that form of reason from the bad kind?

    It is a little hard to tell. Who is the target? It would be better just to name them and their precise arguments. But the author appears to prefer to deliver his barbs with some degree of subtlety. So like much theological expression, it is difficult to sift out the definite meaning. But clearly, someone who has strayed into the evils of post-modern thought is in trouble.

    • Hi Tom,

      Several things in response:

      No, I don’t think that was the thrust of superpope’s comment at all. He seemed, at least to me, to be simply saying that there is no reason why apologetics (the discipline or activity) and evangelism cannot go together. Phillip, the author, agrees with that in his paragraph about Paul’s apologetics. It’s apologising for evangelism that is in the target of this piece.

      You seem to be drawing a long bow to argue that this article links “all of post-modern thought with not being a Christian’. The point made about post-modernism is the in-built relativism which leads evangelists to a lack of certainty, and that’s about it. (Also, this isn’t an ad hominem argument, implicit or otherwise.) An equal point is made about how modernist thought interacts with this subject—that neither of these two things ought to be superior to biblically-framed thought.

      I don’t know how you could construe from this piece—or anything else that Phillip has ever written, ever—that we should for one second rely on “the vaunted authority of the bishop”. (As another side-point: Phillip Jensen is not a bishop.)

      Finally, the point about reason is not that it has no place, or ought to be sneered at, simply that human reason is not the final authority in this universe. Of course we reason things out all the time. Phillip does not in any way give a “definition of post-modern [sic] reason as evil” (I assume here you mean modernist reason, but the principle is the same anyway). He’s just saying that there’s an argument in the modernist world-view that we can do fine without God on the basis of rationally working out things by ourselves, and if we’re not too confident that God’s way is better we’re conceding ground to that world-view.

      Perhaps the target is not someone in particular. Perhaps the target is a general observation about evangelism that he’s observed. Perhaps Phillip is just writing to encourage us to have confidence in declaring the gospel.

  3. For me the lack of precision in the target justifies some form of extrapolation. As far as the link between a non-evangelical theory of knowledge (if I can call it that, meaning modern or post-modern thought not pre-conditioned by whatever version of Christianity you prefer) and not being a Christian, I can only point to the sentence; ‘In adopting today’s language of humble uncertainty, we may be denying our own message’. It seems pretty clear to me, what else would it mean?

    And re the ad hom, saying generally that someone who uses a particular theory of knowledge is linked whether directly or indirectly with being not Christian seems pretty obvious to me. What about the suggestion it might all just be ‘a mask for our embarrassment about the Gospel’? Wouldn’t that qualify? It is a little hard to generalise about such things isn’t it? It is not as though this is a balanced piece. But I can understand the lack of enthusiasm to acknowledge such a device, because it demonstrates a lack of anything better.

    I find it quite easy to construe an authority sub-text to the piece. If we cannot rely on a theory of knowledge that is not pre-conditioned by one particular religious dogma or another, then how can we know what is true? Isn’t the only alternative to rely on a religious leader to inform us, so we can get develop our ‘biblically-framed thought’? That great leader has the power to interpret the text, and to control many aspects of the life of the church community, including who is in or out.

    Isn’t it the case that reason or some theory of knowledge or perception is the only way by which an individual can know anything about anything, whether religion or the difference between day and night? I’m not really sure you can argue that reason has a place but then say it must always be subject to ‘biblically framed thought’. The qualification seems rather vast.

    But I suppose it comes back to a particular view of biblical infallibility, which always seems to be a cover for ‘my particular interpretation of the text is infallible’ more than anything else.

    • As far as the link between a non-evangelical theory of knowledge (if I can call it that, meaning modern or post-modern thought not pre-conditioned by whatever version of Christianity you prefer) and not being a Christian, I can only point to the sentence; ‘In adopting today’s language of humble uncertainty, we may be denying our own message’. It seems pretty clear to me, what else would it mean?

      That sentence means something very specific, and certainly not that all of post-modern thought is non-Christian. (Some elements of post-modernism would be, for sure, just as some aspects of modernism are fairly actively non-Christian, but absolutely everything.) The sentence following shows how if we are not confident in the truth of the gospel above all else we may be denying the message that neither human reason nor moral relativism are ultimate.

      And re the ad hom…

      Even if Phillip were saying “generally that someone who uses a particular theory of knowledge is linked whether directly or indirectly with being not Christian”, which is not the burden of the piece, as above—even if this were the case, it’s arguing against the idea not the person. It’s not saying, “don’t listen to them, they’re evil”, it’s saying that this practice is a bad thing. If you don’t like the argument against the activity/position of a hypothetical or generalised person you can’t just cry “logical fallacy” and disregard everything. It’s just not the case.

      I find it quite easy to construe an authority sub-text to the piece.

      Well, that’s a construction based on a construction that ends up at odds with everything that he’s ever written about authority, church life, interaction with the Bible, etc.

      I’m not really sure you can argue that reason has a place but then say it must always be subject to ‘biblically framed thought’.

      Your original comment was black-or-white: if you allow reason at all, it can only be the sole thing you rely on. That’s not the case, not what Phillip was arguing for. It’s not a binary decision.


  4. Re the modern, post-modern etc, I think it would be helpful if it were possible to separate the theory of knowledge from the underlying agenda of the person using it. It appears from this piece that for the Christian the theory of knowledge must ultimately be governed by the agenda. Which surely puts the cart before the horse, because how do you assess the validity of the agenda?

    Re the ad hom (if you agree it is there), certainly you can view it narrowly. It is only addressed to points of view. Or you could view it widely. It is aimed at people using the points of view. But surely if we are bandying around ‘denying our own message’ and ‘masks for embarrassment’ can we really pretend there is not a hint of the pejorative? I guess you can, but alas, I was brought up in a Presbyterian household, and therein lies the entire explanation for me. Plus I have been contaminated by the whole post-modern, post-Enlightenment, individualism-encrusted apocalypse.

    A theologian complaining about a construction based on a construction. How does that work? I am not planning to sift through the author’s entire works, I was only referring to this one.

    I’m not sure I follow the comment about reason. My thought is that you would start with a theory of knowledge and see where it took you, whether it included something you called reason (or not). Here it seems if you use some system of thought that does not permit you to chant the dogmatic mantra with total confidence, you are either embarrassed or denying your own message (but not you say, a non-Christian. Phew there’s a relief).

    If it is the case (as you say it is, at least I think?) that the author is not suggesting it is necessary, whatever theory you use, to always arrive at the same conclusion, it is certainly not that obvious. At least to me. Must be the whole Presbyterian contamination, for which I can only point the finger at my ancestors.

    • I’ve got two final comments, after which I think I’m going to take my leave.

      Firstly, regarding your continued contention that this article is an ad hominem attack: we really need to get our terms defined here. An ad hominem argument is to bring up a person’s character in order to divert attention away from the substance of the argument, e.g. “Don’t listen to his argument about immigration reform, because he’s an adulterer.” That is, a specific character flaw regarding a particular person is used to discredit an unrelated argument.

      If anything, that’s the complete opposite of what is going on here. Phillip is not talking about a specific person, and his contention is with the actual action and words, not an unrelated argument. So when he goes against being overly apologetic in declaring the goodness of the gospel, that’s not in order to draw attention away from the substantive issue, that’s actually the issue itself. To run with the above example, it’s more the case of saying “if a married man goes and commits adultery, that is a terrible thing.” That’s not an ad hominem fallacy, that’s speaking against an action (albeit one that is a more extreme example than Phillip’s one above).

      You may not like the critique, but you need to engage with it. Calling it ad hominem and then failing to engage with the critique is actually a logical fallacy of roughly the same order.

      Secondly, you keep universalizing a statement about how the gospel may conflict with certain aspects of systems of thought into binary oppositions between those systems. You seem to be contending that starting with a position that the ultimate truth of the gospel and a commitment to moral relativism is untenable necessarily leads to concluding that all of post-modernism is at best sub-Christian. I don’t think that necessarily follows. It does mean that moral relativism is sub-Christian, but it doesn’t say anything about the rest of the system. It doesn’t lead you to say that Christianity and post-modernism can never have any common points.

      This is what I mean about a construction based on a construction. You contend something that I think is an unreasonable logical conclusion of this article, and based on that idea that ‘my system is better than your system’ you “construe an authority sub-text”. You can construe such a thing? Well done, good for you. I can assure you though that it is in total opposition to the intent of the author, his long-held and articulated position, and, I continue to contend, the actual content of the piece.

      To avoid this turning in to more of a philosophical treatise than it already has become, for more on how starting with a theory of knowledge can run up against limitations on human reason I refer you to writings of, for example, Alvin Plantinga, in conversation with Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, etc.


  5. Hi Sam,

    Sweet, I can now say what I want! I will imagine you are reading it though, just to make me not feel stupid.

    The raising of the existence of an exact ad hominem argument to the level of pain is yours I think. If you accepted my construction of it, you might agree that some type of ad hom appears, but if not, you wouldn’t. We can now stop.

    My point was more that the argument was sloppy and unconvincing than that it was wholly based on a direct and perfectly formulated ad hominem premise and therefore false. The components of the argument that identify prejudicial characteristics that can only be held by an actual person (eg denying the message or being embarrassed) appear clearly and generally linked to particular systems of thought (modern, post-modern). If you accept that is the strength of it, sloppy and thus unconvincing.

    Not accepting it, or entranced by other information, you need not concern yourself. It is a great argument. We can, no we should, all chant our evangelical mantra and ignore the doubters, who are after all perhaps denying the message (because they are not Christian?), or just embarrassed (spineless liberals?).

    I read the substantive issue as whether the gospel was true, rather than whether or not someone was overly apologetic. So perhaps that goes in some way to explain our differing approaches.

    You see Sam, this is the beauty of the current human condition as it bears on organized religion. One can construe one thing, and another a different one. No harm done. Unless we move say to Russia.

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