Recovering Christian Confidence: Proclaiming the Gospel in an Age of Skepticism and Cynicism Lecture 1. Alister McGrath. The task of apologetics.
Sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts, being prepared to give an answer to all those who ask you for a reason for the hope that is within you (1 Peter 3.15).
Extremely important text
Assumes that people are already inclined to ask you questions about the Christian faith – see Graham Tomlin’s The Provocative Church
Negatively, it is about countering objections to the Christian faith
Positively, it is about explaining the truth and vitality of the Christian faith
We must get away from the idea that apologetics is reactive, doing nothing other than respond to criticisms and objections
Apologetics must be able to take the initiative, and set out the attraction of the gospel in terms our culture can understand, using media our culture can access
Traditionally understood as pre-evangelism – in other words, as addressing questions and difficulties raised by non-Christians
This remains vitally important
We need to listen to the questions raised by our culture, and give thought to how best to respond to them
Removing misunderstandings and misconceptions
There is a real need for an apologetic ministry within the church
a) for Christians who are unsure about their faith. (Note that C.S. Lewis is read mostly by Christians seeking reassurance.)
b) for Christians who want to be equipped to deal with their friends’ hard questions
Can easily be misunderstood to imply a rationalist approach to apologetics – namely, that apologetics is simply about intellectual arguments in favour of faith
Apologetics engages the mind, the heart and the imagination
We impoverish the gospel if we believe it only impacts upon the human mind
Apologetics as pre-evangelism
Helpful, but not good enough!
Apologetics as ground-clearing
Apologetics as non-confrontational
An analogy: the Parables of Feasting
Limits the appeal of Christianity to its ideas
What about the person of Christ, who is right at the heart of faith?
Or the Old Testament’s appeal to the “beauty of the Lord”?
And what about the role of grace?
Or the Holy Spirit?
“The apologist is regarded as an aggressive, opportunistic person who tries, by fair means or foul, to argue people into joining the church. Numerous charges are laid at the door of apologetics: its neglect of grace, of prayer, and of the life-giving power of the Word of God.”
A History of Apologetics (1971), xv.
Neither apologetics nor evangelism are about arguing people into the kingdom of God
If people are blinded by the “spirit of the age”, divine grace is needed to heal them
Paul saw his proclamation as grounded in the power of God, not human wisdom or strength (1 Corinthians 2.1-4)
Amazing grace! How sweet the soundThat saved a wretch like me!I once was lost, but now am found;Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,And grace my fears relieved;How precious did that grace appearThe hour I first believed.
Classic analysis of
the limits of reason
and argument in
“Great use may be made of external arguments; they are not to be neglected, but highly prized and valued; for they may be greatly serviceable to awaken unbelievers, and bring them to serious consideration, and to confirm the faith of true saints.”
“[Yet] there is no spiritual conviction . . . but what arises from an apprehension of the spiritual beauty and glory of divine things.”
The sermon “A Divine and Supernatural Light Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, Shown to be Both Scriptural and Rational Doctrine,” preached at Northampton, Massachussets, in 1734.
“He that is spiritually enlightened truly apprehends and sees it, or has a sense of it. He does not merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart. There is not only a rational belief that God is holy, and that holiness is a good thing, but there is a sense of the loveliness of God’s holiness.”
Philip and Nathanael
“come and see”
John 2 doing nothing other than respond to criticisms and objections
Juan de Flandes,
Marriage Feast at Cana (1500).
“Christ revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him” (John 2:11)
Apologetics as bearing
witness to the glory
Modernity “arrived” sometime around 1720-50
It was fiercely opposed at the time by Christians, who saw it as destructive of faith
Now we seem to have got used to it, and some even treat it as a “good thing”. Or even a necessary thing.
Postmodernity is a new cultural mood, displacing modernity
Some older apologists are often so wedded to rationalist approaches that they can’t cope with the new situation
They often seem to want to convert people to modernity so that their apologetic approaches will work
Why one size does not fit all!
Biblical models: Acts 2 – Acts 17
Biblical models – the parables
Key audience issues:
b) language and concepts
Difficult to define – many definitions around
Not uniform – expect to find congregations and groups which are still “modern” rather than postmodern
Nothing can be known for certain
All things are equally good
There is no truth – just truths
“There are no absolute truths”
OK – so what is the status of this statement
If it is to be of any interest, it must be universally true
But if so, it is an absolute truth
So the argument is not about whether there are absolute truths, but about what these truths are.
The key issue is self-reference
Many people propose criteria of truth, yet seem to exempt themselves from those criteria
Example: A. J. Ayer
“There are no absolute truths” is a statement of absolute truth which negates itself.
Truth is no longer something positive
Truth is really about power
To claim to be telling the truth is to claim authority over someone else
Key source for these ideas – Michel Foucault
Madness is determined by society
Madness means revolt against the norms of a society
Society thus uses madness to neutralize threats to its existence
Suttee is the practice of burning widows alive on their late husband’s funeral pyre, common in certain parts of India
It was banned by the British in the 1850s
Were the British right to ban it?
Postmodernity aversive to “truth”
Tendency to equate claims to “telling the truth” with domination and power
Emphasis on truth seen as characteristic of and outdated and discredited modernity
So what can we do?
Option 1 – critique postmodernity’s aversion to truth
Option 2 – work within postmodernity’s emphasis on “lure” or “attraction”
Key question: how does reading Scripture help us understand the attractiveness of the Christian faith?
Jesus as the “bread of life” (John 6)
Jesus as the “spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4)
“Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34)
Longing to “behold the fair beauty of the Lord” (Psalm 27)
Real truth is not oppressive – it is liberating!
The truth sets us free
If there is a God, we are liberated from being under any other lesser authority
The case of atheism as a case in point.
The aftermath of the Soviet era
Atheism was once seen as a liberator – e.g. in 1789
But when it came to power, it turned out to be just as bad as anything that had preceded it
In fact, it was worse – all the limits to human action were removed
“If God exists, then everything is His will, and I can do nothing of my own apart from His will. If there’s no God, then everything is my will, and I’m bound to express my self-will.”
It turned out that atheism was a one-time liberator that had turned oppressor
Its social role as a liberator was determined by its historical situation, not its fundamental idea
The same atheism was a liberator in 1789, and an oppressor in 1989
And the same is true for the church
The church was seen as an oppressor by the French people in 1789
But it was seen as a liberator by the East Germans on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall
The protest meetings against communist authoritarianism were held in Protestant churches
We need to ensure that the church proclaims freedom in word and in deed, so that the liberating impact of the gospel can be seen.
Scripture is saturated with stories
“Story” does not imply that what is told is not true; it places emphasis upon its narrated and historical character
Idea of entering into the story . . .
Rise of postmodernism demands recovery of this older, more authentic approach
Most people do not think in abstract, conceptual ways, but base their thinking on controlling stories or images.
This means that abstract, conceptual ways of proclaiming Christ are inaccessible to many. But stories are different . . .
Narratives provide a framework for making sense of things
The calling of Abraham
The exodus from Egypt
The exile in Babylon
The parables: earthly stories with heavenly meanings
Very accessible earthly stories with heavenly meanings
Engage the imagination – very open-ended
Three parables as examples:
The Pearl of Great Price
The Prodigal Son
Scripture is rich in images
Images encourage an engagement with Scripture
Images stimulate the imagination, as well as the reason
Images speak to those who are not especially good at argument or analysis
We’ve seen this point already . . .
We must let images be images!
They engage the imagination
Rationalism: wants to limit the image – give a definition; impose a meaning; reduce it to a single didactic point
Most people like engaging with images because they have many aspects
Mark 10:45 The Son of Man came ‘to give his life as a ransom for many.’
1 Timothy 2:5-6 Jesus Christ is ‘the one mediator between humanity and God’ who ‘gave himself as a ransom for all.’
Bondage to sin (Romans 7)
A price has been paid to set us free (1 Corinthians 6)
We now enter the glorious liberty of the children of God (Romans 8)
We have been adopted as children of God (Romans 8)
This means that we belong somewhere
We are welcomed into God’s family; we are wanted
Traditionally, apologetics has used word-based arguments.
But how are we to respond to the new importance attached to images?
If images, not words, are gateways to faith, how can we use them? And encourage others to use them?
Charles Chaplin, Modern Times (1936)
Used to show the failure of modernity to deliver the liberation and autonomy it promised
A work of art
Edvard Munch, The Scream (1893)
The Scream worldview as a heartfelt cry of utter despair at the meaninglessness of life, and the hopelessness of the human situation.
All that we can do is protest; we cannot change anything.
You’ve just made this all up. It’s a delusion. You’ve invented this to console you.
What do we say?
Things don’t exist because we want them to - but it is nonsense to say that, because we want something to exist, it cannot exist for that reason!
Christian doctrine of creation has much to say here!
The argument works against both theist and atheist
“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen – not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.”
To praise you is the desire of humanity, a small piece of your creation. You stir humanity to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you.
His theory predicts that religion will disappear after a socialist revolution
But it didn’t - see the Russian revolution
So theory and observation had to be brought together through the forcible suppression of religion
Religion, opium for the people! To those suffering pain, humiliation, illness, and serfdom, it promised a reward in afterlife. And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death – the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.
Religious beliefs are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind . . . As we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection – for protection through love – which was provided by the father.
Best response is by Armand Nicholi, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School
His key book - The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life
What do they have in common?
All argue that we want to believe in God, for social or psychological reasons
A) Wanting something doesn’t mean that it can’t exist!
B) Atheists don’t want to believe in God – so does that make their belief invalid?
We need to realize that atheism is just as much a faith as Christianity
Neither can prove their case with absolute certainty
But most atheists think that their worldview is factual, the only serious option for a thinking person