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Recovering Christian Confidence: Proclaiming the Gospel in an Age of Skepticism and Cynicism Lecture 1. Alister McGrath. The task of apologetics.

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Recovering Christian Confidence: Proclaiming the Gospel in an Age of Skepticism and CynicismLecture 1

Alister McGrath

the task of apologetics
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).

1 peter 3 15
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

two key aspects of apologetics
Two key aspects of apologetics

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

the audience for apologetics
The Audience for Apologetics

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

the audience for apologetics7
The Audience for Apologetics


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

1 peter 3 158
1 Peter 3.15

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

evangelism and apologetics
Evangelism and Apologetics

Apologetics as pre-evangelism

Helpful, but not good enough!

Apologetics as ground-clearing

Apologetics as non-confrontational

An analogy: the Parables of Feasting

the limitations of a rationalist apologetics
The limitations of a rationalist apologetics

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?

avery dulles on apologetics
Avery Dulles on Apologetics

“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.

the divine dimension
The divine dimension

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)

john newton
John Newton

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.

jonathan edwards
Jonathan Edwards

Classic analysis of

the limits of reason

and argument in

evangelism and


jonathan edwards15
Jonathan Edwards

“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.”

jonathan edwards16
Jonathan Edwards

“[Yet] there is no spiritual conviction . . . but what arises from an apprehension of the spiritual beauty and glory of divine things.”

what edwards had in mind
What Edwards had in mind . . .

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.

what edwards had in mind18
What Edwards had in mind . . .

“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.”

a biblical example
A biblical example

John 1

Philip and Nathanael

“come and see”

John 2

The glory

of Christ

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

of Christ

why modernity is not a good thing
Why modernity is not a good thing . . .

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.

and why postmodernity is not a bad thing
. . . And why postmodernity is not a bad 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

the importance of the audience
The importance of the audience

Why one size does not fit all!

Biblical models: Acts 2 – Acts 17

Biblical models – the parables

Key audience issues:

a) history

b) language and concepts

c) authorities

Postmodernity . . .

Difficult to define – many definitions around

Not uniform – expect to find congregations and groups which are still “modern” rather than postmodern

truth in a confused society
Truth in a Confused Society


Nothing can be known for certain

All things are equally good

There is no truth – just truths

the problem with this approach
The Problem with this Approach

“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 problem explored further
The Problem explored further

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.

the postmodern aversion to truth
The Postmodern Aversion to Truth

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

foucault on madness
Foucault on Madness

Madness is determined by society

Madness means revolt against the norms of a society

Society thus uses madness to neutralize threats to its existence

the suttee issue
The Suttee Issue

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 and scripture
Postmodernity and Scripture

1. Truth

2. Story

3. Images

issue 1 truth
Issue 1: Truth

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

issue 1 truth36
Issue 1: Truth

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?

the attractiveness of faith biblical themes
The Attractiveness of Faith:Biblical Themes

Jesus as the “bread of life” (John 6)

Jesus as the “spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4)

the attractiveness of faith biblical themes41
The Attractiveness of Faith:Biblical Themes

“Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34)

Longing to “behold the fair beauty of the Lord” (Psalm 27)

a christian response
A Christian response

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.

atheist totalitarianism
Atheist totalitarianism

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

dostoyevsky the possessed
Dostoyevsky, The Possessed

“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.”

atheist totalitarianism48
Atheist totalitarianism

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

atheist totalitarianism49
Atheist totalitarianism

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

the truth shall set you free
The truth shall set you free

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.

issue 2 story
Issue 2: Story

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 . . .

on telling biblical stories
On telling biblical stories

Narratives provide a framework for making sense of things

The calling of Abraham

The exodus from Egypt

The exile in Babylon

on telling biblical stories54
On telling biblical stories

The parables: earthly stories with heavenly meanings

Very accessible earthly stories with heavenly meanings

Engage the imagination – very open-ended

on telling biblical stories55
On telling biblical stories

Three parables as examples:

The Sower

The Pearl of Great Price

The Prodigal Son

issue 3 images
Issue 3: Images

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

postmodernity and images
Postmodernity and Images

We’ve seen this point already . . .

a biblical image
A Biblical Image . . .

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.’

exploring the image of ransom
Exploring the image of “ransom”

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)

another image adoption
Another Image: Adoption

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

images and apologetics
Images and Apologetics

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?

example 1
Example 1

A film

Charles Chaplin, Modern Times (1936)

Depiction of the dehumanizing effect of the mechanical worldview

Used to show the failure of modernity to deliver the liberation and autonomy it promised

example 2
Example 2

A work of art

Edvard Munch, The Scream (1893)

The Scream 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.

looking at an objection
Looking at an objection:

You’ve just made this all up. It’s a delusion. You’ve invented this to console you.

What do we say?

problems with feuerbach
Problems with Feuerbach

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

c s lewis
C. S. Lewis

“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.”

  • C.S. Lewis, “Is theology poetry?”, in Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces. London: HarperCollins, 2000, 10-21; 21.
augustine on the purpose of human creation
Augustine on the Purpose of Human Creation

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.

problems with marx
Problems with Marx

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

czeslaw milosz83
Czeslaw Milosz

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.

religion as illusion
Religion as illusion

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.

responding to freud
Responding to Freud . . .

Best response is by Armand Nicholi, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School

responding to freud87
Responding to Freud . . .

His key book - The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life

feuerbach marx and freud
Feuerbach, Marx and Freud

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?

atheism is a faith
Atheism is a faith!

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