Who Wants to Be an Apologist?

   Posted by: Rob Bowman   in apologetics

After a bit of a hiatus during which those of us at the Institute for Religious Research have been reflecting on the direction our organization is headed, I wish to resume this blog with some thoughts on the notion of being an apologist. Although some of us actually consider the role of a Christian apologist to be an honorable vocation and ministry, the term apologist is now largely used as a pejorative.



The Jerusalem Post, for example, refers to Jimmy Carter as “Hamas’s apologist.” Similarly, Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch calls John Esposito, a Western scholar on Islam funded by Saudi royalty, an Islamic “apologist.” Salon.com refers to Holocaust denier David Irving as “Hitler’s apologist.” Various scholars and critics of groups commonly called “cults” have referred to those scholars whose treatment of these groups was more sympathetic or exculpatory as “cult apologists.”

The connotation of apologist in this usage is pretty clear: an apologist is someone who defends the indefensible, for whatever reason (prejudice, power, and money are among the most common accusations). In popular usage, apologists are not truth-seekers but rather truth-benders, sophisticates skilled at making the irrational seem reasonable, the immoral seem moral, and the false seem true. Their intention is simply to defend the position they have chosen to take, come what may, facts and evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

A related perception, which seems to be increasingly common within Christianity, is that apologists—and I am now speaking specifically of Christian apologists—tend to be arrogant know-it-alls, smart-alecks who are quick to criticize even picayune errors and whose interest in doctrinal correctness is not matched or balanced by an interest in people. In a recent blog, Michael Spencer, the “Internet Monk,” posed this question: “Why are apologists….you know…..why are they the way they are?” By way of explanation, Spencer links to a Bizarro comic (by Don Piraro) in which St. Peter turns away a man at the Pearly Gates with the comment, “You were a believer, yes. But you skipped the not-being-a-jerk-about-it part.” In short, Spencer is suggesting, apologists are jerks.

Spencer’s question touched a nerve, eliciting dozens of responses, many of them negatively disposed toward apologists. One commented that apologetics is “a confidence game.” Another, while admitting there were exceptions, complained that many apologists “would probably argue with the apostles about doctrines or dogmas of the Church if they could.” Another admitted, “I hate apologists.” A couple of posters described themselves as “recovering apologists.” Still another asserted, “Most apologists rely on little ‘gotcha’ tricks, smokescreens, red herrings, and a whole host of logical fallacies to tire any rational person who dares argue with them into submission.” Yet another opined, “Apologetics is more or less a sport for fat Christian men who were never good at real sports in their youth.” (Try telling that to Mary Jo Sharp, the slender Christian woman who heads Confident Christianity.)

Many of us get down on “apologists” when their arguments call into question the legitimacy of our own views or religious practices. A notorious example was the following statement made by Word-Faith televangelist John Avanzini, apparently another recovering apologist, on TBN years ago:

“The apologists—I’m telling you they could make falling off a stool difficult. You’d have to go to college to learn how to fall off a stool if you were an apologist…. So, I’m not impressed with the apologists any longer. And I may as well get it out—I used to be one! And God forgive me, and I promise not to ever do it again.”

For many years I happily called myself an apologist, despite comments like these. In the last couple of years, I have to admit, I’ve had some misgivings. Among those who respect apologetics as a venerable Christian ministry, the term apologist typically carries no pejorative associations. Unfortunately, they are not the people I am primarily seeking to serve. If I’m seeking to communicate to Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, liberal Protestants, or skeptics, or even to pietistic evangelical Christians who do not appreciate the importance of apologetics, describing myself as an apologist may not be helpful. I’m not the only one who feels this way: a friend of mine, who is a brilliant apologist, prefers not to use that term for himself. Still, given the considerable paper trail tying me to apologetics, I’m probably stuck with it! So rather than try to jettison the label, I will try to make clear—by the way I actually conduct myself as well as by my words—that a Christian apologist need not be a jerk.

Let me close by sharing some ideals that I think should characterize Christian apologists, ideals toward which I (quite imperfectly, I’m sure) aspire.

1. A good apologist defends only what he has already become convinced is the truth. Should this be obvious? Of course, but occasionally it’s helpful to state the obvious.

2. A good apologist constantly seeks truth and critically reviews his assumptions and beliefs. Having become convinced that a particular doctrine or idea is true, an apologist is not done seeking truth. The quest goes on. Since it remains true that “we know in part” (1 Cor. 13:9), our knowledge is imperfect and therefore always is subject to correction, revision, and refinement. God’s truth is absolute, but our knowledge of that truth is not absolute.

3. A good apologist seeks to grow as a whole, Christian human being. Being knowledgeable about apologetics, the Bible, and Christian doctrine can be very helpful to the Christian life, but it is not the end-all and be-all of the Christian life. Good apologists know this. Like all of us, an apologist has his strengths and weaknesses, and he seeks to grow in those weaknesses without neglecting his strengths. (By the way, it wouldn’t hurt those who are not apologists to try to grow in the area of apologetics.)

4. A good apologist cares about people as well as about the truth. Again, stating the obvious sometimes can be a helpful reminder. I resist the all too common temptation to pit truth against love; both are essential. As one commentator put it, “The one cannot exist without the other; truth without love is dead, and love without truth is blind.”

5. A good apologist eschews poor arguments even in the service of true conclusions. After all, one thing a good apologist knows is that the end does not justify the means. Therefore, he will work very hard to make sure that his arguments are factually well supported and logically valid. He will avoid fallacious reasoning like the plague. He will check his factual assertions to ensure that they represent the facts accurately and in context.

6. A good apologist welcomes constructive criticism. Knowing that we are all fallible, the wise apologist is grateful when someone dismantles his arguments and points out mistakes or fallacies or potential holes in those arguments. He is in fact eager to learn, even from his intellectual opponents. This means that a good apologist frankly admits when he has had to change his mind about something.

7. A good apologist clearly distinguishes essentials from non-essentials. To know the truth means knowing what truths are essential to the Christian faith and what truths are non-essential. It is essential to the Christian faith to know that Christ rose from the dead; it is not essential to know (for example) whether the guard unit at the tomb was Jewish or Roman. Although apologists naturally and properly want to know the answers to such questions (since they want their arguments to be as factually accurate as possible), they should not treat all questions as if they were of equal importance. The same caution applies in the area of theology. Each Christian apologist is going to have an opinion on such questions as the order and timing of various eschatological events (the Rapture, the Tribulation, the Millennium, etc.), and there’s nothing wrong with examining and discussing these questions, but they should never be treated as if they were just as important as the deity of Christ.

8. A good apologist seeks to honor Christ in all that he says and does. In his famous injunction to be ready to defend the faith, Peter begins by instructing us to “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts” (1 Peter 3:15). Apologetics is about truth and about people, but it is ultimately about Jesus Christ our Lord.

Lord, show me where I fall short in these matters, and may you continue to raise up many good apologists in these days of confusion.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 21st, 2009 at 1:08 pm and is filed under apologetics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 comments so far


Thanks for giving us all a high standard to shoot for, and redeeming the calling to defend the faith while speaking the truth charitably. You know you are a true apologist when you provide a sound apologetic for apologetics! Shalom.

January 24th, 2009 at 10:05 pm
Bill Smith

Rob, There is definitely a knee jerk reaction to the apologetics. Just the other day I was on a blogsite where the blogger was spouting disdain for the concept of apologetics. His claim was first of all arguing with people does not accomplish anything except causing them to dispise Christians. Secondly, he was basically saying that people who practice apologetics don’t really understand other people. The blogger did a pretty good job of arguing his points at times. I was impressed with how all of us seek to pursuade people of our point of view which we believe to be more nearly correct than the person or group we are differing with. What I am noticing is that many of the people who are making these apologics against apologetics are using some of the same strategies (the limits of reason, the ineffectiveness of persuading people through argument, the fact that we live in a postmodern world, etc.)

January 25th, 2009 at 4:37 pm

Well, let’s face it. “Apologetics” has always been rather a dodgy notion because it presumes that the one presenting the “apologia” is interested in promoting his view, and that just ain’t cricket anymore.

Because “apologists” are understood to be “selling” ideas rather than engaging in a search for the truth, they appear to be another variety of proselytiser rather than a sincere seeker after truth.

February 3rd, 2009 at 4:21 pm

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