January 21, 2021

Riding the Right Wave?


Richard Land, who for 25 years served the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, became president of Southern Evangelical Seminary (SES) in Charlotte, N.C. in July.

In a recent article, Land notes that apologetics has been the special focus of the school, and he believes a renewed emphasis upon that discipline in the future will be key to the church’s success in evangelism: “I fervently believe apologetics is the way we will spell Christian evangelism, missions, and discipleship in the 21st century,” he wrote.

With approval he cites Dr. Elmer Towns, who wrote in an email to Land, “The next great trend in the evangelical church is ‘apologetic evangelism’, those who can go and give a defense of the faith while they present the Gospel. That means you are on the cutting edge of the next trend in Christianity.”

Is apologetics the “next great trend”?

Is this the wave the Church needs to get on and ride into the future?

I have my doubts.

Certainly there is always a place for a reasonable defense of the faith. This is especially true with regard to the person of Jesus and the reality of the resurrection. There is also a way of doing apologetics that appeals to the heart, that lays bare our human nature — the image of God in us — and speaks credibly to the hungers all people have for connection to the Source of meaning, beauty, justice, love, and peace.

Unfortunately, most Christian apologetics that I have seen in my lifetime have not, in my opinion, borne a great deal of fruit. Most of the time, they end up fueling intramural Christian battles more than being a winsome way of attracting people to Christ. And when apologetic efforts are directed toward those outside the Church, they usually reflect shallow dogmatic positions meant to win arguments and end discussions. rather than providing opportunities for people to wrestle with ambiguities and mysteries and enter into relationships in which spiritual discovery can happen in the context of real life and supportive love.

I would assert, from my own experience that most people aren’t looking for “answers,” and that Christians are not likely to convince most non-believers into the faith by sound arguments and logic — especially in these post-modern days and in times to come.

Of course, we should always be available to answer honest questions. Even then, I have found that most people asking those questions are not really seeking intellectual satisfaction, at least primarily. Rather, they are expressing emotional and spiritual pain of one sort or another. Listen to them for a few minutes — really listen — and you will find they don’t give a rat’s behind about orthodoxy and getting it all figured out in their heads. They want someone to care about them, welcome them, support them, and walk with them.

The kind of “apologetic” that is needed is more about orthopraxy — manifesting the divine life, showing forth the reality of something that is not illogical but beyond logic, the mystery of Christ in us and the reality of the Kingdom of God. People are tired of talking points. They need to see something unexplainable.

The kind of apologetic we need is expressed in the early Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus:

cover.225x225-75For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

To sum up all in one word–what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. The invisible soul is guarded by the visible body, and Christians are known indeed to be in the world, but their godliness remains invisible. The flesh hates the soul, and wars against it, though itself suffering no injury, because it is prevented from enjoying pleasures; the world also hates the Christians, though in nowise injured, because they abjure pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and [loves also] the members; Christians likewise love those that hate them. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens. The soul, when but ill-provided with food and drink, becomes better; in like manner, the Christians, though subjected day by day to punishment, increase the more in number. God has assigned them this illustrious position, which it were unlawful for them to forsake.

Now there’s the wave to catch. That’s one we can ride all the way to shore.


  1. It’s odd that he would pick CS Lewis as a model for his “apologetic army”, because Lewis is really quite different from what they’re going for. He is much less rationalist and triumphalist than a lot of contemporary apologists.

  2. Chaplain MIKE,

    Outstanding statement, this:

    “The kind of “apologetic” that is needed is more about orthopraxy — manifesting the divine life, showing forth the reality of something that is not illogical but beyond logic, the mystery of Christ in us and the reality of the Kingdom of God. People are tired of talking points. They need to see something unexplainable.”

    It’s like that story of Mother Antonia recently, the little nun who walked unafraid into the prison riot amidst bullets and gas, and the prisoners, seeing her fearlessness, ceased their rioting.

    self-sacrificing ‘Love’ belongs to the Mystery of Christ

    the great ‘paradoxes’ of our faith hold greater wisdom for our spirits than of all the manufactured apologetics we are drawn to with our minds

  3. Great post. My favorite articulation of the same point comes from (what else?) Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Gilead.’ I come back to this time and time again when people overemphasize the use of apologetics:

    “In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things.

    So my advice is this– don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother win them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wring to you even if you convince someone else with them. That is very unsettling over the long term. ‘Let your works shine before men,’ etc. It was Coleridge who said Christianity is a life, not a doctrine, words to that effect. I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave youa mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment. ”

    pp. 178-179

  4. David Cornwell says

    Intellectual arguments will seldom win anyone. I’ve never heard of an atheist becoming a Christian because of reading a good book of Christian apologetic. And Towns must be joking when he speaks of using such arguments in ‘mission.’

    When we live out the Story we claim to believe, then people will take note. Not so sure the Church is doing that these days. We have become simply another expression reflecting back the prevailing culture. And that’s true whether it’s from a liberal perspective or a conservative one.

    The piece from “The Epistle of…” is simply amazing. And Sean’s quote from “Gilead” is right to the point.

  5. Wonderful points, I gave up on apologetics years ago for many of the same reasons. I seek that which is mysterious, not always that which can be perfectly explained.

    This also reminds me that the root of this type of thinking is a result of the abandonment of a proper view of the Trinity. Seeing Christianity as a religion focused on a singular God (Christ) leads to efforts to prove Christ’s existence as well as the hiistory of the Bible. A proper view of the trinity would say that the Spirit brings the gift of grace and the Spirit builds the Church!

  6. To say things another way, most people don’t need to be convinced that Christianity is true, but that it is real.

  7. Sorry. To ME it seems that people are missing the point of apologetics as quoted in the article, to wit: “Simply put, apologetics means loving people enough to give them reasonable and compelling answers to their honest questions. When Christians do this, they are fulfilling the Apostle Peter’s admonition to “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).”

    Apologetics is not a cudgel with which an unbeliever is beaten into the Kingdom but, rather, it is a way of presenting the Gospel in a way that answers questions and refutes misconceptions.

    And it is not just to be used while conversing with unbelievers! I, personally, find that it is used MOSTLY in dealing with BELIEVERS, first and foremost. A new Christian has little clue to the “why’s and wherefore’s” of the faith. They have to be TAUGHT as an augment to their own personal experience. I see this every Sunday in my Sunday School class (adults!). People want to be told what to believe, without doing the heavy lifting of studying it themselves! Consequently, when questioned by friends and acquaintances about their way of living, they tend to be at a disadvantage when questioned by non believers and are prone to be swayed by those posing a non orthodox view of the faith.

    The real key with apologetics is that there FIRST has to be a questioner, someone who sincerely wants an explanation and clarification of their misconceptions. This is where I disagree with the article’s claim that “apologetics evangelization” is any sort of “wave of the future”. It is NOT a tool to prove someone wrong, nor is it a tool to prove yourself RIGHT. It is a method of leading one into belief in a way that answers reasonable objections in a meek and humble manner.

    Perhaps some here might reconsider what they call “apologetics” and call it for what it is: A way to convince yourself that YOU have the right answers and, doggone it, you’ll MAKE them believe!


    • Oscar, in my experience, the vast majority of apologetics ends up falling into the trap you identify in your final two paragraphs. Giving answers is always easier than love (which certainly includes, but is not exhausted by giving answers).

  8. if Richard Land served 25 years at whatever, i’m assuming he’s at least in his late 50s. If that’s the case, is this the person we want to listen to when it comes to proclaiming the future of evangelism? how in touch with the next generation can this guy be?

    • Chad, your comment seems to skate perilously close to the land of ad hominem. I am in my early 60s, but spend my professional life with teens. Does my age disqualify me from speaking to them of their future? My experience says not.

      Of much more concern to me is Land’s combining the two words, apologetics and evangelism. I just don’t see the Jesus of the Gospels issuing propositional, rationalistic bursts of logic to announce the kingdom. This is the problem I have with Land’s assertion.

  9. The primary confession of the Christian before the world is the deed which interprets itself.

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  10. “To say things another way, most people don’t need to be convinced that Christianity is true, but that it is real”.

    Apologetics sometimes seems to give more rational comfort to someone who already believes than the other way around. In noticing the point of view that people need to see something that is unexplainable, it reminds me of my own changing, which in seeking to understand, I subsequently found it to be apophatic in nature. Now most people think that this “negative theology” is one attempt to explain God. But I protest. I feel it is a way( God knows I don’t think the only) to discard some of the personal, social, family, and cultural influence on oneself, and open up to other influence. The apophatic is mysterious, and can lead to a direct perception of the Divine in life.

  11. Patrick Kyle says

    Apologetics is the primary means by which we differentiate Christianity from made up fairy tales that pass themselves off as religion. The ability to defend the faith logically AND historically is unique to Christianity, and is as much or more benefit for believers than for non believers.

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