During the past five years, alert and sensitive observers of the theological scene have noted that Christian apologetics is undergoing a renascence. This discipline, possessed of such an honorable heritage, fell into decline during the ascendency of Barthianism, with its aversion to natural theology and evidential supports for faith. Today this is changed, however. Thus, Martin Marty writes:
The apologist is coming into his own again in the church. In the earlier Barthian period the apologist had to run for cover; now more are coming to agree with W. Norman Pittenger that it is hard enough to be a Christian; should thought forms be adopted which exaggerate the intellectual difficulties? John Baillie, for instance, chastened by Barthian mistrust of natural theology, consistently attempted to carry on an understanding of the secular world and bring a Christian witness to it [Varieties of Unbelief, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964, p. 208].
In a similar vein, William Hordern has written: “In recent years a number of books have appeared to argue that, despite changes in the world, the truth of Christian faith can be defended. A new form of apologetics is beginning to appear” (New Directions in Theology Today, Volume I: Introduction).
At least two factors have especially contributed to the renewal of apologetics in our day, it seems. One, already mentioned, is the decline of Barthianism. Daniel Day Williams says:
The dogmatic expositions of Christian doctrine (and when have there been three more powerful ones than those of Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Paul Tillich?) have suddenly lost the center of attention, and are not the major subject of theological inquiry, nor are they invoked in that inquiry. It is as if this systematic language about God has suddenly been drained of its power to communicate the meaning of God. I am not referring primarily to the “death of God” thinkers. They are not unimportant indicators, but by themselves they do not give us the key to the theological situation. I point rather to the widespread concern of the new generation of theologians with questions about meaning, truth, and language which have been pressed by the philosophers. Barth and Brunner tried to bypass the philosophical analysis of meaning. Tillich accepted its necessity, but while, I think, he met the positivists’ questions at the right point, the discussion is far from over, and his own metaphysical language quite clearly does not carry conviction even to many disposed to accept some ontology [“The New Theological Situation,” Theology Today, Jan., 1968, p. 446].
An examination of the topics at the fore in theological discussion today is instructive: religious language, faith and history, Christian hope. All these are basically apologetic in character. It is not simply the resurgence of apologetics as a distinct discipline that is notable today but rather the whole apologetic tone of theology.
The other factor, also alluded to in William’s statement, is the reduction of skepticism in philosophical circles. From the zenith of logical positivism, with its rejection of theological discourse as literally “non-sense” and therefore meaningless, philosophy has become considerably more disposed to consider the questions of theology and religion as at least being proper questions. One indication of this is the large number of philosophy-of-religion texts that have recently appeared.
If apologetics is experiencing new life, the question of its role and task becomes even more important. (In this discussion we are using the term Christian apologetics to mean, simply, reasoned advocacy of the Christian faith, the alternatives being either an unreasoned advocacy or a reasoned nonadvocacy.) If, as the late Edward J. Carnell maintained, the apologist must adapt his approach and method to the mood of the day, then the question must be asked anew: What is the task of apologetics in this day?
The first task of apologetics will be to ask the question of the truth of Christianity. It has become fairly commonplace to say that the important issue is not the truth of Christianity but its relevance. Today, however, that thesis is being challenged. The so-called Pannenberg circle in particular is insisting that the geschichtliche significance of Christianity is logically dependent upon the Historie. In the long run, nothing can be relevant that is not true. Carl Braaten says: “The common retort that modern man, after all, is not concerned with the old question of the truth of the faith, rather with its meaning, is a dodge that is as apologetically impotent as it is theologically fatal” (New Directions in Theology Today, Volume II: History and Hermeneutics, Westminster, 1966, p. 48). He then goes on to quote Gerhard Ebeling:
“The criterion of the understandability of our preaching is not the believer but the nonbeliever. For the proclaimed word seeks to effect faith, but does not presuppose faith as a necessary preliminary. The actual situation with the church’s proclamation today is, however, that for the most part the believing congregation is made the criterion of whether the preaching is understandable, and thereby faith is made a prerequisite of the hearing of the Word.”
The conservative’s presentation of the message generally rests upon a tacit syllogism:
Whatever the Bible teaches is true.
This is something that the Bible teaches.
Therefore: This is true.
Exegesis deals with the second premise, seeking to determine just what the Bible’s teaching is. Exegesis is indispensable, and as long as our audience is restricted to those who accept the major premise, exegesis may be sufficient. There are, however, large segments of the world population that simply do not accept the major premise and consequently are very little interested in the results of our exegesis. If Braaten and Ebeling are correct, we must direct our attention to the question of the truth of Christianity. This does not presuppose that the case for Christianity can be or ought to be attempted on the unbeliever’s own terms. It may well be that, as Hordern says, the Christian apologist will have to point out to the unbeliever that his position rests upon certain faith elements, and to challenge that faith. Nonetheless, he will seek to ask and to answer the question of truth.
The second task of apologetics will be to show the signification of the Christian faith. If large numbers of contemporary persons are not convinced of the truthfulness of Christianity, it is similarly true that many modern men find it meaningless. When we speak of the tenets of our belief, they simply do not understand what we are talking about, and perhaps cannot even imagine what we could possibly be talking about. To be sure, it appears unlikely, from Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus (John 3:1–15) and his experiences with the disciples (cf. John 10:1–6), as well as from Paul’s statement in First Corinthians 2, that we will ever completely overcome this problem. Nonetheless, the communication gap between the Church and the secular world seems sharper than it has usually been in the past. Consequently, it is essential that we try to avoid making the message unnecessarily hard to understand.
To be biblical in communication is not necessarily to repeat the exact words of Scripture. I have never met a minister whose sermon consisted solely of direct biblical quotations, nor have I met a minister who gave verbatim to a group of kindergarten children the message he gave to a group of college students, or who quoted the Bible only in Greek and Hebrew to an audience of persons who did not know the biblical languages. The task is to take the essential meaning of those words and express it in language and concepts that the hearer can comprehend. If we require our missionaries to spend months in language study so they can communicate with the Japanese or the Filipino, ought we not similarly to spend time learning to speak the language of the doctor, philosopher, businessman, or truck driver? This will not be easy work, but it is important work.
A third task relates to the significance of the Christian message. Often the non-Christian does not ask questions of what Christianity is and whether it is true, because he fails to see what difference the answer to these questions would make to him. Apologetics will concern itself with this problem. It will seek to state the message in a way that relates it to the kinds of questions contemporary man is asking. Man may not always be asking the right questions, but the conversation must begin where the person is, or it will not really begin at all. The message must be related to existing persons and to their questions, not to those of a generation ago, or even five years ago. It will begin at the point of contact in the man’s consciousness, and move from there. The apologist is to present the full message of Christianity, but there are several possible beginning points. Apologetics will initially emphasize themes that relate naturally to the interests and felt needs of the hearer.
An excellent case in point is Jurgen Moltmann and The Theology of Hope (Harper & Row, 1967), in which he stresses one of the primary Christian themes: the doctrine of hope. His book is in large part a reply to the Marxist Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope. One of the questions that Marxists seem particularly concerned with is man’s hope and his future. Moltmann is therefore able to engage them at this point, whereas they would probably turn a deaf ear to attempts to begin with Christianity’s other salient features.
Yet another item on the apologist’s agenda will be the need of defining the essence of Christianity. As overlooked as that title was in the nineteenth century, the question definitely needs an airing. Is Christianity essentially an experience? A way of living? A set of doctrines to be believed? A series of historical events? Or is it several or even all of these, and if so, in what proportions? Much of the debate now going on in Christian circles appears to stem from confusion and ambiguity about what is Christianity. We need to do some hard and clear thinking on this question.
A fifth task of apologetics is posing pre-theological questions. Karl Barth attempted to construct a theology in which philosophy would make no constitutive contribution. So strong was this determination that when, after the first volume of his projected Christliche Dogmatik appeared, scholars pointed out that it contained Kierkegaardian existentialism, he abandoned the project and began anew with his massive Kirchliche Dogmatik. In this he believed he had attained the cherished ideal of a philosophically sterile theology. The verdict of history, however, appears to be that Barth’s attempt failed, and that this is perhaps an indication that the attempt is a futile one.
It is my contention that theology, as a formal discipline, cannot function without adopting or assuming some philosophical basis. Theology is to the immediate affirmations of the faith (e.g., “I believe God is one and God is three”) somewhat what scientific theory and explication is to protocol sensory statements (e.g., “The book is blue”). Theology and science are attempts to ask the deeper meaning of the relatively simple statements made above. It may be that the faith statement about the Trinity (“God is one and God is three”) can be made without much philosophical involvement (though this is debatable). I challenge any theologian, however, to explain the Trinity without employing philosophical concepts. But what philosophical categories shall we use in formulating our understanding of the Trinity? Substance, process, existential, personalistic, or what? Apologetics must concern itself with this issue.
This means that some of the slogans that have become commonplace in recent years will bear intense examination. One of these is the idea that the New Testament reflects Greek ontological concepts, while the Hebrew mind of the Old Testament was more non-postulational. The implication is often left that we ought to try to get back to the pure Hebraic. Reinhold Niebuhr has said:
Christianity is commonly believed to be a joint product of Hebraic and Hellenic cultures. This is true only in the sense that, beginning with the Johannine literature in the Bible, it sought to come to terms with the Greek concept of the permanent structure in things, and has embodied in its own life the permanent tension between the Greek and the Hebraic ways of apprehending reality. But this does not change the fact that when it is true to itself, it is Hebraic rather than Hellenic [The Self and the Dramas of History, Faber and Faber, 1956, p. 89].
Yet when Niebuhr describes the Hebraic conception, it comes out sounding strangely like twentieth-century existentialism. May it be that something is happening here similar to the charge brought by George Tyrrell against the nineteenth-century liberal searcher for the historical Jesus, that he looked down through nineteen centuries of time and saw simply the reflection of a liberal Protestant face? Perhaps the contribution of Rudolf Bultmann has been in making explicit what he has been doing in giving the New Testament message an existentialist interpretation, whereas some other theologians may have been practicing this covertly.
A whole host of questions here arise. Does the Christian revelation carry a philosophy of its own? If so, how does one come to apprehend it? On what criteria does one judge which “pre-understanding” he ought to adopt? How can he become objective enough to make such an evaluation and choice? These again are hard questions, but they must be asked if we are to avoid undue distortion of the Christian message.
Yet another function of apologetics will be in sharpening our thinking and thus focusing more clearly the issues being considered. In theological discussion, as in so many other realms, progress is sometimes impeded because there is no real agreement about what the issue is. I have sat in more than one classroom discussion in which the real point of difference was not over what the answer to the question was but over how we go about finding the answer, or how we recognize that it is the correct answer when we obtain it. Apologetics concerns itself with defining the terms and isolating the issues under discussion.
William James gives a now classic example of this in an essay entitled “What Pragmatism Means.” Two men, says James, were engaged in a heated argument over whether a man “goes around” a squirrel on the side of a tree. The dispute, however, is not really what it appears to be, according to James. The real question is what it means to “go around.” If by “go around” one means to be first to the north of the squirrel, then to the west, then to the south, and then to the east, the man does indeed go around the squirrel. If, however, one means by that expression to be first on the squirrel’s right side, then behind him, then on his left side, and finally in front of him, the man does not, as anyone familiar with squirrels knows, go around the squirrel. The squirrel will always keep the tree between himself and the man. The argument is really not about a difference of fact, but rather over a definition of terms.
Real progress in the resolution of differences of opinion can come only when the issue is correctly and clearly identified. It appears to me that in our dialogue with other theologians, as well as with those outside the Christian faith, there is need for this work of clarification. The issue will not necessarily be resolved for having been clarified, but at least progress is more probable.
Apologetics also has a vital role to play in the spiritual well-being of Christians. If, as we so regularly say, man is a unified being, then his spiritual relationship to God will be affected by the intellectual problems with which he grapples. The parents whose child is dying of leukemia will find that their faith and devotion to God is disturbed by it. To be sure, the problem of evil is not always or entirely encountered on an intellectual level, but it will frequently call for some type of intellectual alleviation. I have cited the problem of evil because it is a problem for a rather large number of Christians. Others may have different problems. Some of these cannot be adequately solved within this life, but alleviation will often be helpful.
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