Seventh-day Adventism arose during the Second Great Awakening, a time of great religious revival, with a renewed emphasis on sanctification and an intense interest in Bible study. The Second Great Awakening uplifted the Scriptures as the source of authority, and opposed skepticism, deism, and rationalism. Church membership and attendance rose dramatically. Several religious movements began during this time, including the Advent movement of William Miller, the Restoration movement of Barton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell, and the Mormon movement of Joseph Smith. These eventually led to the founding of several new denominations, including the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Evangelical Christian Church in Canada, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The intellectual culture of America was very different in those days. Few people had much formal schooling. Most of the public schools were effectively Protestant schools in which the Bible was used as a textbook, a tendency even more pronounced on the frontier and in rural areas, where the teacher was usually a young woman given room and board on a rotating basis by the families of her pupils. The public schools, such as they were, generally were not secular nor hostile to the Bible and the biblical worldview. Almost all of America's colleges and universities had been founded as religious institutions with the purpose of educating the clergy. Not until the last couple of decades of the 19th Century was there a widespread movement in the United States to establish tax-funded public universities.
Because the Advent movement and later the Seventh-day Adventist Church arose in this intensely Christian culture, we took for granted that most of our potential converts understood and accepted a biblical worldview, including the existence of God, the Creator-ship of God, and the Bible as the inspired word of God. To the extent we were right in this assumption, our task in evangelism was simply to demonstrate that our doctrines were more clearly supported by Scripture than contrary doctrines widely taught in Christianity.
But in America and the rest of the developed world, the culture has radically changed. We are not in the midst of any religious revival or great awakening. The public schools are secular, sometimes even aggressively atheistic, with little mention of God or the Bible, and no encouragement of belief in the Bible's claim to be the word of God. In the state-funded universities, the professors typically promote skepticism and unbelief as the preferred mode of intellectual life and inquiry. This educational culture is reinforced by a broader culture that is secular, neo-pagan in its sexual mores, and often anti-Christian.
Given the neo-pagan, post-Christian culture of the developed world, we can no longer assume that our potential converts accept that the Bible is God's word, essentially inerrant, and the proper rule of doctrine and practice. To do so limits our evangelism to what is referred to as “sheep-stealing,” meaning drawing converts from other Christian denominations that already share our high view of Scripture. In order to reach secular, unchurched people raised in the culture of the developed world, we must be able to answer skeptical arguments, clearing away the canards of unbelief from the foundations of the system of truth. This task is known to the larger Christian world as apologetics.
I say apologetics is known to the larger Christian world because, unfortunately, it is largely unknown within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Whenever I speak of apologetics in Adventist circles, I have to explain the concept. This is not the case when I talk to non-Adventist Christians. At a Thanksgiving family gathering a few years ago, I mentioned to a cousin, who is an optometrist and a Southern Baptist who sends his children to Baylor University, that I was interested in apologetics. He asked, “Which type, pre-suppositional or classical?” His question indicated a level of sophistication unheard of in Adventist circles. This needs to be corrected. As a people, we need to understand both the theory and the practice of the defense of the faith through evidence and reasoned argument. Toward that end, I offer this article.
The term “apologetics” derives from the Classical Greek word apologia. The ancient Greek legal system was like the modern Anglo-American one, in that it was an adversarial system: the prosecution tried to prove guilt, and the defense tried to prove innocence, or at least to show that guilt had not been proven. In the Greek system, the prosecution delivered the kategoria and the defendant replied with an apologia. To deliver an apologia meant to make a formal defense of the accused, and a refutation of the charges against him. In his trial before Festus and Agrippa, the Apostle Paul used a verb derived from apologia when he stated, “I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defense [apologeisthai] against all the accusations of the Jews.” (Acts 26:2).
The modern English word “apology” is derived from apologia, but its primary and most common meaning is a plea for forgiveness, within which is an explicit (or at least implicit or tacit) admission of guilt. Thus, the English word “apology” implies guilt, whereas the Greek apologia was a denial and refutation of guilt.
B. The Biblical Imperative to Defend the Faith
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes of “the defense [apologia] and confirmation of the gospel” (1:7) and states that he has been placed where he is (a prisoner in Rome) “for the defense [apologian] of the gospel.” (v. 16). In his epistle to the Romans, Paul states that unbelievers are “without a defense” (anapologētoi) for rejecting the revelation of God in the creation: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Rom. 1:20). Peter also uses the term, when he writes that believers must always be ready to give an answer [apologian] to anyone who asks for the reason [logon] for the hope that is within them” (1 Pet. 3:15).
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul notes that part of his ministry is to tear down arguments against the faith: “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ . . .” (2 Cor. 10:5). The Greek word here translated as “arguments,” logismos, has been translated as “reasonings,” “imaginations,” and “speculations,” and could also fairly be translated as “theories,” as in “We destroy human theories and every pretentious argument raised against the knowledge of God . . .” When a theory or argument is raised as an obstacle to the knowledge of God, or against the truths conveyed in God’s word, then, according to the apostolic example, the Christian is to demolish that theory, and make every thought captive to Christ. This is a clear and unmistakable description of the apologist’s task.
In his evangelistic outreach to the Jews, Paul made it a practice to go into the Synagogue every Sabbath and “reason” with them. This is mentioned frequently in the Scriptures, including in Acts 17:2, 17; Acts 18:4, 19; and Acts 19:8-9. The Greek verb dialegomai (usually translated as “reason”) also means to converse, to discourse, to argue, and to dispute. The sort of reasoned argument described by this term is a core function of the apologist. The concept includes making arguments from Scripture, which would have been especially persuasive to synagogue-going Jews. But when Paul addressed a pagan Greek audience, the Areopagus on Mars Hill (Acts 17:19-34), he quoted the pagan Greek philosopher Epimenides and the Greek poet Aratus (Acts 17:28).
Each Christian is given one or more spiritual gifts, but not all have the same gift; the church is organized, with specialized offices and ministries. (See, 1 Cor. 12). Some are given the gifts of wisdom, some of knowledge, and those who are given these gifts are to use them to build up the body of Christ. (1 Cor. 12:8, 12-14, 27-30). It follows that those who are given the gifts required to make an intellectual defense of the faith based upon reason and argument should use those gifts for that purpose. Hence the Church has always recognized the role of the apologist.
C. Christian Apologetics across History
Christian apologetics has a long and distinguished pedigree in the church, beginning with the apostle Paul, and including early church writers such as Origen and Augustine. When the church faced intermittent persecution from the Roman state, the apologist’s task was to defend the believers from official, legal persecution (and mob action inspired by malicious rumors). Based upon a hyper-literal misinterpretation of the ordinance of communion, Christians were accused of cannibalism. And due to their practice of addressing each other as “brother” and “sister,” Christians were accused of Incest. To give one example of an early Christian apologist, Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) in his “First Apology,” defended the morality of the Christian life, and made ethical and philosophical arguments to convince the Roman Emperor, Antoninus Pius (emperor, 138-161 AD) to stop persecuting the Christian believers.
More recently, Christian apologists have devoted themselves to arguing that, even in a largely secular, scientific culture, Christian faith is still viable. Notable 20th and 21st Century Christian apologists have included C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Norman Geisler, Francis Schaeffer, Gordon Clark, Cornelius Van Til, Josh McDowell, Alvin Plantinga, J. P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, and Lee Strobel.
D. The scope of apologetics
Apologetics is a wide ranging field that includes arguments for the existence of God, a defense of the character and justice of God in the face of the existence of evil (this is often referred to as theodicy), a defense of the Scriptures, including their inspired nature and their accuracy, and the defense of specific Christian doctrines, such as the divinity of Christ, the historicity of Christ's miracles and the Resurrection, etc.
It is crucial to understand that an apologist defends the faith. The faith is not defined by what the apologist wants to defend, or finds easy, convenient, or expedient to defend. Rather, the faith is a given, and the apologist defends it to the best of his ability, using evidence and reasoned argument. The arguments available to the apologist are as wide ranging and varied as human experience, but the apologist will naturally concentrate on the most logically rigorous and compelling arguments, which tend to be those with the widest appeal to an open-minded audience.
Subsequent to the establishment and widespread acceptance of Darwinism in the late 19th Century, the defense of the Bible's teaching of a divine, supernatural creation against notions of accidental self-organization has grown into a major sub-field of apologetics. The apologist opposes the theory of evolution for two reasons: 1) Evolution contradicts and undermines belief in the Bible's narrative of divine creation, and 2) it takes away a compelling argument for the existence of God: a created world and universe. The second point is crucial. The argument from order, design, and purpose in the creation is known as the teleological argument, and was made by pre-Christian pagan philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, as well as by Bible-writers such as David (Psalm 19) and Paul (Rom. 1:18-20).
Paul considered the creation doctrine of such importance that he began his sermon to the Areopagus in Athens with creationism: “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. . . . he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth . . .” Acts 17:24-26. The failure to acknowledge God as the Creator opens the door for every form and species of idolatry and immorality (Rom. 1:18-32), just as it did in ancient Athens, which was “full of idols.” Acts 17:16
E. What apologetics is Not
Apologetics is not an attempt to replace faith with reason. The apologist understands that faith is the essential core of Christianity, which is why Christianity is called a faith. “Without faith, it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.” (Heb. 11:6). The apologist understands that it is not possible to make an airtight proof for Christianity, such that everyone will be compelled to believe. Rather, the apologist's job is to show that the faith, although essentially and finally an unprovable belief, is not an unreasonable or illogical belief, but is consistent with reason and with the available evidence.
Apologetics is not science. Because there is a pressing need for origins apologetics, it has sometimes been assumed that denominational scientists will take the laboring oar, but apologetics and science are different endeavors. The scientist is concerned with expanding the frontiers of knowledge, with technical descriptions of natural phenomena, and with publishing research in scientific journals. The apologist is not concerned with describing the natural world in a scientific manner, and will generally avoid technical jargon. He will often be a popularizer of scientific concepts in the course of demonstrating how they support or are consistent with the faith.
The apologist's task is to show that science “brings from her research nothing that, rightly understood, conflicts with divine revelation.” Education, p. 128. In doing so, he will often be called upon to separate the facts from the naturalistic interpretations in which the facts are shrouded. The apologist will critique naturalistic, atheistic explanations of origins, but this places no burden on him to create a comprehensive model of origins to replace the current mainstream scientific paradigm. (Darwinists often argue that one may not criticize the “mainstream” origins narrative unless one can forward an alternative scientific paradigm, but this is a rather transparent stratagem to shelter Darwinism from criticism.)
Apologetics is not criticism of Scripture. The apologist accepts Scripture as the inspired Word of God. Scripture is self-authenticating, and does not require authentication by external bodies of knowledge. The Christian apologist argues for the inspired nature of Scripture, and the superiority of the Bible over other holy books such as the Qur'an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, etc. but does not accept or reject Scripture based upon its concordance with external bodies of knowledge, or based upon the quality of arguments he is able to marshal in favor of its divine inspiration.
Apologetics is not hermeneutics. Apologetics is not about interpreting Scripture, and the apologist must be careful to reject the temptation to use external data, such as scientific data, to interpret Scripture or to define and limit the meaning of Scripture. Scripture is self-interpreting, and does not require external bodies of knowledge, such as science, for interpretation. The apologist defends given interpretations of Scripture.
The apologist rejects the view that normal apologetics—reasoned argument in defense of the faith—is itself a form of biblical criticism. This view is associated with fideism, which is a complete rejection of reason as a path to knowledge, an epistemological rejection of reason. Although fallen human reason must be guided by God's truth revealed in Scripture (1 Cor. 1:18-31), an entirely negative view of reason and the evidence of the senses is not supported by Scripture. “Come, let us reason together,” says God (Isa. 1:18), and Scripture points to the visible creation as evidence of the existence of God: “the heavens declare the glory of God, the skies show the work of His hands.” (Psalm 19:1. See, also, Psalm 8:3-4; Rom. 1:19-20; Acts 14:17, 18:4.) Accordingly, the Christian church historically has rejected fideism, and has affirmed a role for reasoned argument in defense of the faith.
The apologist also rejects the closely related error that faith and reason inhabit different, non-overlapping spheres or magisteria (teaching domains), and thus any attempt to support faith with reason and evidence is illegitimate. In fact, the Bible makes claims that are not limited to spiritual matters—claims about people who really lived, places that really existed, and events that really happened. Many of these factual claims have been verified by archeology and other disciplines or are subject to future verification or falsification. Thus, the apologist rejects any attempt to separate faith and reason into non-overlapping spheres.
F. Apologetics distinguished from polemics
A Polemic, the sustained critique of another belief system, is appropriate when there are two alternative belief systems in competition. For anyone, the main alternative explanations of the creation are Darwinism (meaning the “mainstream” scientific, academic consensus) versus some form of divine creation or design. Thus an apologist defending a belief in a Creator-God will sometimes be called upon to critique the “mainstream” theory of origins. If the apologist's audience is limited to Christians, the two competing models will be biblical creationism versus a compromise position such as theistic evolution or long ages creationism, so a defense of biblical creationism will involve a polemic against those other systems, typically noting the doctrinal and theological problems the compromise position will create for a Christian believer. Ordinarily, however, apologetics is a positive defense of the faith, not an attack on alternative belief systems.
Summary and Conclusion
The Seventh-day Adventist Church arose within a culture that largely took for granted the groundwork of the Christian faith: that God exists, that the world was created, that the Bible is God's word, that Christ was the Son of God, that the Resurrection happened, etc. The task of the early Adventist evangelist was largely one of demonstrating to an audience that already accepted biblical authority that Adventist doctrines were based upon the best and most comprehensive reading of Scripture. Today's culture is very different, and many people in the post-Christian, secular West no longer accept a biblical worldview. In this new environment, Adventist evangelists need to be familiar with the basic arguments on many issues relating to the faith.
Apologetics is its own discipline; it is neither science nor theology. The apologist’s role is argumentation, and the disciplines most relevant are logic, rhetoric, speech, research, and writing. The apologist must be able to efficiently research and self-educate in whatever field is relevant to current conflicts with, and within, the Christian faith. The apologist must be a quick study, trained to efficiently ascertain what is in controversy, and what is not, and, perhaps most importantly, to separate fact from interpretation, assumption, and theory.