I believe that the task of apologetics is a vital part of the life of the Christian church and its mission in the world. If Christian faith means trusting in Christ on the basis of good grounds or evidence, then the apologetic task of articulating and presenting these grounds to believers, seekers, and skeptics will be an ongoing duty. However, during my course of studying philosophy and theology for the past 20 years, I’ve noticed three pitfalls into which apologists (myself included) tend to blunder – pitfalls that, when left unchecked, undermine the church’s credibility in the marketplace of ideas. Fortunately, we can avoid those blunders by adopting some epistemic humility. Here they are:
1. Reluctance to critique our own beliefs responsibly. It’s an all-too-human tendency to protect our own beliefs by applying more stringent standards to the views we disagree with, and apologists are no exception. To be responsible truth seekers, we need to be consistent in the application of our critical standards, since if we don’t, we open ourselves to the legitimate charge of hypocrisy. What’s worse, if we fail to engage in equitable self-critique, we run the risk of leading others astray by reinforcing our own status quo. In this context, humility demands that we acknowledge and pay attention to the tension points in our own views, not just the views of others.
2. Reluctance to acknowledge the strong points in others’ views. This point is similar to the first, but it gets to the heart of “loving our neighbour”. Apologists (myself included) can be adept at exposing flaws in other viewpoints, but half-hearted about affirming the cogent aspects of those views. Part of being charitable toward our neighbours is being charitable in how we interpret them! This includes the assumption that we have things to learn from them, instead of waiting to pounce of their very next word. In other words, to truly have a dialogue with our neighbours, we must affirm the strengths in their views, not merely critique their defects. Otherwise, we are engaging in a monologue, not a dialogue. I call this a “hermeneutics of charity.”
3. A Neglect of Pastoral Concern. In our zeal to defend Christianity, many of us apologists forget about “bedside manner.” We may address a person’s question on an intellectual level but fail to address it on an adequately personal level. Answering questions personally means that when we encounter a malformed objection, we volunteer to help the questioner reconstruct the objection charitably. This goes miles toward winning people to Christ because it demonstrates a genuine willingness to understand. A personal concern also means getting to the root of a question. When asked about the status of women in the Bible, we need to consider more than biblical hermeneutics. Need to get at why the person is asking. Has this person come from a tradition in which women were marginalized? Are they experiencing marital conflict as a result of distorted teaching about male “headship”? These considerations go a long way for shaping a wise and discerning apologetic response.