Personal Apologetics

Article ID: JAR5324 | By: J.B. Stump

Sean McDowell has put together a useful and engaging book. Strictly speaking, it is not a work of apologetics but might be classified as a meta-apologetics book. That is to say, it is a series of reflections about apologetics or how to go about doing apologetics. The target audience is primarily Christian youth workers and leaders within the church who might be engaged in apologetics ministries. This is not the sort of book by which an unbeliever might be persuaded to accept arguments for the faith. If unbelievers pick it up and read it, however, it is plausible that they might be more attracted to the sort of apologists featured in it. That is the central point of the book—that apologetics needs to recover the human element.

Besides McDowell’s introduction, there are sixteen essays written by those working on the front lines of apologetic ministries, and six short interviews with prominent apologists. There is a kinder, gentler approach to apologetics advocated in most of the essays. The reader repeatedly encounters phrases such as, “Apologetics for a new generation must be about winning people rather than winning arguments” (pp. 28, 96); “We must learn to present the truth of Christ in a meek and gentle way” (111); and, “We cannot simply have good arguments; our lives must reflect the presence of the Holy Spirit’s life in us” (143). Although these attitudes seem softer than those expressed in prior years, this new generation of apologists has not softened its commitment to defending the truth. They do not want to allow a gentle spirit to displace a tough mind or to let tolerance and good will collapse into relativism. McDowell says in his introduction, “Evangelism today must be both relational and rational” (20). This approach is illustrated well in the first three essays.

In the first essay, Dan Kimball makes the case that having positive interactions with unbelievers is the first step toward successful apologetics. This is more than just an evangelistic strategy, however. Treating people with honor and respect should be expected of mature believers; happily (and not surprisingly), it turns out that people are more likely to respond positively to apologetics when they are treated this way. Next, Brett Kunkle shows the importance of combating relativism and gives good strategies for doing so with people who think they are committed to it. Then, the apologetics hall-of-famer Josh McDowell (Sean’s father) brings these two emphases together in his powerful autobiographical piece. He succinctly summarizes the position he has developed after decades in the field: “Truth without relationships is modernism. Relationships without truth is postmodernism” (64). We need them both in order to succeed in evangelism.

Other essays in the first two parts give a more expansive methodology for apologetics, including storytelling, art, and film. I found Mark Matlock’s essay “Apologetics and Emotional Development” to be particularly enlightening on the optimal emotional context for responding to the truth. Then, in Part Three, there are essays on issues we face in contemporary society such as the uniqueness of Jesus, homosexuality, and abortion. A couple of these seem a little out of stride with the overall tenor of the book. Jason Carlson gives a straightforward evidentialist apologetic defense in “Jesus: Risen for a New Generation”, and Stephen Wagner’s “Abortion and Common Ground” advocates in-your-face anti-abortion strategies as a way to stir up discussion. These may add points of emphasis that should not be lost from the apologetic enterprise, but taken by themselves they do not seem to exemplify the relational-rational balance the book encourages.

Finally, most would admit that practitioners of Christian apologetics of the previous generation have been overwhelmingly white and male. That is not at all to say that there has been anything prejudicial intended in their work. Perhaps some sins of omission have been committed, however, by not actively developing approaches that may be more relevant and welcoming to people who don’t belong to the dominant culture. We need not fudge at all on the importance of maintaining absolute truth while at the same time recognizing that there are culturally dependent features to the use of reason. Essays by Alison Thomas, “Apologetics and Race,” and Jonalyn Grace Fincher, “Defending Femininity,” go a long way toward starting such conversations. McDowell is to be commended for including them in the book and thus widening the apologetics conversation.

The authors of this volume attest to the fact that there isn’t a decline in interest in apologetics among the current generation of young people. For those who work with this generation, McDowell’s book will be a helpful resource.

—J. B. Stump

J. B. Stump is professor of philosophy at Bethel College, Indiana.