Christian Apologetics

So here’s the story… A good friend of mine (anonymous for the time being) has agreed to do a class in Christian Apologetics at a Christian middle school. He’s an orthodox Trinitarian Christian but is a bit on the liberal side. Oddly, he was asked to lead this class by one of the major denominational figures in his area who is very conservative. Interesting situation to say the least…

So we’ve been kicking around some thoughts on what this might look like. Apologetics has always seemed a sticky issue for me. As y’all know, I think of myself as being pretty much in the middle theologically (and politically). I see apologetics as the playground of the conservatives, generally the provenance of those who have no qualms about shoving their faith claims down someone else’s throat. It’s a style of debate characterized more often by volume than intellectual and spiritual engagement. Of late, I tend to associate it with those former Anglicans who now boast of the superiority of the magisterium which has saved them from the horrors of individual decision making as well as the stereotypical Baptist-y apologists who want to tell me I’m not a *real* Christian because I say the Angelus and Hail Marys.

The problem is, most liberals are way too…well…*liberal* to want to do apologetics. After all, it’s the liberal wing that has made a truce (however uneasy) with relativism and once that has happened, how or why would you argue for your faith over and against any other options?

I’m caught in a quandry because I see myself between these extremes. I am a committed Christian, I believe it is the right path both for me–and a whole lot of people with emptiness in their lives who are looking for something meaningful. Square in my sights are (to use Schleiermacher’s term) “the cultured despisers of religion” who don’t seem to want to acknowledge anything outside of their empiricist materialist philosophy.

So–(I’m putting myself in my friend’s shoes here) how would I go about designing a curriculum for 8th graders in a (conservative) Christian school that a) meet the school’s felt need for an Apologetics class and b) uphold a faith stance that believes in both God-given reason and divinely revealed truth with some grey areas between where the one starts and the other stops? Here are my initial thoughts for an 8 class session:

1st session—exploring religious debate: basically, you lay out some of the major fallacies in debate and lay down some of the basic ways to create and support and argument with very special reference to what works and what doesn’t in religious debate. I.e., “’Cause the Bible says so” is *not* an argument and will get you nowhere unless the other person already accepts the Bible as authoritative…

2nd session—Me and We: what I believe and what the Church believes. Essentially, this says there’s a difference between arguing Christian truths vs. Denominational truths vs. Personal truths. When you talk Church truths, you’re not talking about subjective personal beliefs but something that has formed as a consensus over centuries. Here’s where you introduce the triple notion of Canon, Creed, and Enduring Tradition as things that the Church has agreed on over the century after much debate. These have become common property and as such have an authority rooted in Christian consensus…

3rd session—The Canon

4th session—The Creeds: Here you hit the highpoints of the various Christological/Trinitarian heresies with a schema that I like to call Divine Algebra (I don’t think I’ve blogged about this before…)

5th session—The Church

I’m really thinking the remaining sessions might function as free-for-all. Sort of theological sparring training using small groups…

Clearly, I’m posting this for your thoughts and input—fire away.

11 thoughts on “Christian Apologetics

  1. David B.

    I think apologetics have to be wholistic, involving the heart and the mind, and in word and deed. Memorizing facts leaves out the heart aspect of it. Reducing it to academics does the same thing. Not backing up what we say with charitable behavior often leads to a rejection of what we say. I think we should live apologetics, and if I taught a class on it, I would emphasize how holistic apologetics must be.

    Plus, I don’t think obscurantism or mischaracterization helps either, at least not in the long run, and I see a lot of this in much apologetics. Therefore it helps to be brutally honest where issues exist that may weaken our position. For instance many Catholic apologists give the opinion that all the Church Fathers agree, etc, when this is not so. Many act as if the 1st century church looks just like the current church. On the flip side, many “bible-believers” try to reconcile every gospel story, coming up with unbelievable stories to try to make everything harmonize, when just admitting up front the Bible is not perfect would probably be just fine. However, for an 8th graders, who may not even know the basics, an overview is probably best, although I would certainly have a class on how practicing Christian virtues helps make a great apologetic.

    I have to disagree about not running into liberal apologists. I have seen many liberal and moderate apologists, some whose apologetics would make conservatives blush. Try disagreeing with the standard assumptions of current religious higher education and see how quickly the person you are talking to turns into an apologist. Question relativism and see how quickly relativism is defended as a dogma. Even this post of yours is a kind of apologetic, that is a)justifying apologetics and b)arguing against a type of apologetics that is distasteful to you. I suppose liberals and moderates, like conservatives, or anybody really, like to explain what they believe.

    Of course, maybe this is more volume than anything deep! hehe

  2. Derek the Ænglican

    You’re right, David, about the presence of all sorts of apologists. I had in mind liberal apologists *on behalf of Christianity*. I’m sure they exist, but they’re not the group that springs to mind when the word comes up.

    One of the points I would absolutely insist on is that truth is essential. The truth (as far as you know it) *must* be presented even if you believe it hurts the position you wish to argue.

    I have had similar disappointments with both Catholic and conservative Protestant apologists who would like to pretend certain things/people/issues simply don’t exist. (I’m sure moderates and liberals do the same thing as well too, and again, they shouldn’t.)

    And No, I regard your comment as a constructive nuancing rather than an attempt to out-yell someone else…

  3. LutherPunk

    I went to a Christian High School that taught apologetics. I remember exercises in which we would role play:
    “What would you say to a Mormon who was at your door if they told you you had to believe the Book of Mormon?”

    While I loving torturing Mormons just as much as the next guy, I really never found this helpful or meaningful.

    Rather than teaching a traditional apologetics course, I think your friend could simply teach it as a a sort of catechism class. The topics you mention are among the ones that I cover with 8th grade students. The class can be informative and help children articulate their faith without teaching them to be confrontational.

    One of the things that I would add is a “Christian Family Tree” session, which would look at the divisions with Christianity and the faith claims that each make.

  4. Derek the Ænglican

    That was his first inclination. I wondered how that would fit in with the rest of curriculum, though… And whether it would meet what the school administration had in mind when bringing him in. I have a feeling they’ll keep their eye on the class to see what he does…

  5. Gaunilo

    Derek – that’s a really hard call. For my part, I don’t have much time for apologetics either, largely because of the associations you name. Of course, this is to forget (and I do) that much of the great theology of the church has been ‘apologetic’ – Justin Martyr’s Apologies, City of God, Aquinas’ Summa contra Gentiles, Schleiermacher’s Speeches, Tillich’s entire corpus, and (for some people) C.S. Lewis’ works.

    Common to all of these is that they are great theological works first – and they are just as fruitful for the church and catechesis as they are works of persusasion to unbelievers. An apologetic can simply be an outline of the faith with special attention to its intelligibility and defensibility.

    All of which to say I rather like your suggestion and lutherpunk’s about a kind of catechism class. Especially given the context – how much about the Christian faith is the average 8th grader going to know – even (especially?) in a Christian school?

  6. David B.

    When I was thinking of apologists on the left I had John Spong and others in mind, who are cheerleaders for their particular understanding of Christianity.

    I agree we must always accept the truth, however, the problem is that “spiritual” truth is a lot different than scientific truth. I think part of why apologists for all sides talk past each other, and seem very sure of themselves, is that there is no real objective way to measure spiritual truth, because each side has a different set of authorities. So sure I can say “history shows x and y,” but how I apply the history is dependent upon what faith I am in. I think your point was that we shouldnt twist history, etc, and I certainly agree.

  7. Derek the Ænglican

    One of the obvious difficulties in this field is because so much of it really does come down to faith-claims at some point. And a good apologist knows when to recognize that, state it (I.e., “Well, we’ve reached a point where we really can’t progress further; I firmly believe X and you’re at Y and those don’t mesh.), and live with it.

  8. Caelius

    I was referred to in college as the Anglican apologist but in the sense that I apologized a lot.

    Apologetics hasn’t been quite as fun since the downfall of natural theology.

    My only serious recommendation is to deal with the question of theodicy. Apologetics is ultimately an evangelical tool. And yes, the cultivation of the Christian virtues is evangelical, too. But I find that the most amicable inquiries into one’s faith arise from questions of theodicy. Father LP’s Family Tree idea is a good one, too.

  9. D. C.

    For what it’s worth, when I was teaching high-school Sunday school a few years ago, I started each school year by handing out 3×5 cards and asking the students to write down some topics or questions they would like to see discussed. THE most frequently mentioned topic was, in essence, How do we really know there’s a God?

  10. Derek the Ænglican

    Good thoughts! I like the solicitation of question idea. Perhaps the way to approach it pedagogically is helping the students come to the answers that they struggle with the most…

  11. Steve

    Apologetics is giving REASONS for why you believe something is true, in this case Christianity. Biblical “faith” is neither a blind leap nor wishful thinking. It is a commitment to what you have good reasons to think is actually the case. In this sense, I believe apologetics is important for every follower of Christ.

    As for instruction, students should be able to:
    1) give reasons for the historical reliability of the Bible
    2) identify logical fallacies and illegitimate arguments
    3) offer evidence for believing in the God of the Bible
    4) answer various intellectual challenges to Christianity
    5) refute world views and moral systems at odds with Christianity

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