What is Apologetics, and Why Should it Be Considered Holistic?
Updated: Mar 6, 2020
In this post, I have two goals. First, I will define apologetics, primarily from Scripture. Second, I will discuss the basis behind seeing apologetics as properly holistic, which I'll define here as an apologetic intended to appeal both to the head and to the heart. While something called "holistic apologetics" is not meant to denote some unique methodology or model of apologetics, as with methods such as evidentialism and presuppositionalism, holistic apologetics is simply meant to describe a kind of lens through with we view the proper approach to apologetics. In other words, if our apologetic is holistic, then we will be more effective apologists. In this section, I'll discuss the background for this description of apologetics, bringing in the work of Christian philosopher Dr. Paul Gould.
What is apologetics?
First, what is apologetics? This question must immediately come to mind for those who hear the word and immediately think of the word "apology." So, is apologetics saying, "I'm sorry?" No. In fact, the word "apology" has a long history that originates with the Greek combination of apo- and logos in Greek. In ancient Greek, to apologize did not mean to say sorry but, ironically, to defend one's actions! For instance, Plato's Apology is a dialogue of Socrates, in which Socrates defends himself against the dual charge of corrupting the minds of the youth and introducing false gods. If you read the Apology, Socrates is arguing his innocence, not saying that he's sorry for his guilt. In Greek culture, then, apology was often understood in a legal context, much like making a defense for one's innocence today in a criminal trial. Apologetics, then, is derived from the word "apology," but it has nothing to do with saying that you're sorry.
In the New Testament, the Greek word apologia, from which we derive the English word "apology," is used in 1 Peter 3:15 (NASB; emphasis is my own):
"But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence."
The italicized section, "make a defense," is the translation in the NASB of the Greek word apologia. When we think of apologetics, then, we need to think of it not as 21st-century English speakers but as the ancient Greeks thought of it. This seminal text, which you'll see in every article on apologetics, is the heart of what apologetics is and how to practice it correctly.
I'll make three points related to this text. First, we should notice that apologetics is a vital and obligatory part of Christian discipleship and practice. Too many people act as if apologetics is just for that one guy in church who talks about theology all the time. While, yes, some are gifted in and given a particular passion for the defense of the Christian faith, the apostle Peter does not leave open the idea that this defense is optional. We can see this in how the verse begins, with an exhortation to sanctify, or set apart as holy, Christ as Lord in our own hearts. The result of this is a readiness to communicate Christ as Lord to others, and I don't know of any Christian who would say that setting apart Christ as Lord in our hearts is optional. If the former is a matter of obedience to Christ, then so is the latter.
Second, this text not only characterizes what it means to make a defense but also the proper character of the one who makes a defense. Again, I'll refer to the beginning of the verse, to sanctify Christ as Lord in our hearts. If we set apart Christ as Lord, then He is on the throne of our hearts. He takes the place of ultimate authority as Lord and King in our lives. As the New Testament overwhelmingly portrays, the result of this is a changed heart, a process called sanctification, the fruits of which are "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23). All of the knowledge in the world will not result in this character. Therefore, a Christ-like character is necessary for effective apologetics. As with everything else in Christian discipleship and practice, we must embody the gospel of Jesus Christ and seek to be more like Him in order to be winsome apologists. How does this idea present itself in the verse? At the end of the verse, we are told to make our defense "with gentleness and reverence." I would say that this indicates a gentleness toward the person and a reverence for God. His holiness, goodness, beauty, and love must be at the forefront of our minds and hearts in apologetics.
Third, as apologists, we are primarily making a defense concerning the hope within us, that is, the hope of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, redemption by His blood, and the physical resurrection from the dead and judgment day. The implications of this are twofold. First, this orients our apologetics in terms of what it is we're exactly defending. Ultimately, we are defending the central claims of the gospel, including the person and work of Jesus Christ and salvation through faith in Him. That does not mean that we won't defend other contentions, such as the existence of God or the coherence of the doctrine of the Trinity, but all roads ultimately lead to the gospel. Second, defending the hope within us orients us to the faith of the person to whom we're speaking, Christians and non-Christians. Ultimately, we're concerned with their sharing our hope, either in strengthening the faith of a Christian or inviting someone into the Kingdom of God. Too many Christians get lost in discussions on issues that, while important, aren't ultimately gospel-focused. In our practice of apologetics, our central question needs to be about that person's heartfelt response to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
From here, we could easily get into apologetic methodology. That is, what is the best or most biblical approach to Christian apologetics? I won't go into this, however. Perhaps in a later post, I will discuss apologetic methodology in detail, but suffice it to say that apologetics is primarily the defense of the Christian faith. It is obligatory for every follower of Christ as part of setting Him apart as Lord and King of our hearts, and it is oriented toward defending, ultimately, the central claims of the gospel and inviting the unbeliever or Christian into a deeper and more confident and mature faith. It is also necessary for effective apologetics that we are Christ-like in our character.
What is an apologetic that is holistic?
Perhaps it would help in this section to start by defining the word "holistic." In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word is defined as "relating to or concerned with wholes or with complete systems rather than with the analysis of, treatment of, or dissection into parts." We could say, then, that a holistic approach involves the whole of something. In this way, I think of holistic apologetics as concerning the whole of the person, rather than any particular part. Holistic apologetics, then, is intended to reach both the head and heart.
It is important for me to point out that I am not the first person to point this out. Some of the most famous Christian apologists, from Francis Schaeffer to C.S. Lewis, have understood this. C.S. Lewis's journey to faith, which he relates in Surprised by Joy, is about the experience of sublime joy that delighted him but left him wanting something that nothing in the world could satisfy. In experiencing these desires, he recognized in this a desire for transcendence. This argument for God's existence, called the argument from desire, is formulated in his most popular non-fiction work, Mere Christianity, and is considered one of the most important arguments for God's existence among philosophers today. Here, we see that apologetics involves not just rational argumentation but also experience, namely, a firsthand experience of the divine. I would argue that both Surprised by Joy and Mere Christianity involve apologetics, albeit from two different but complimentary perspectives.
This example shows that there are two different but complimentary "ways," as it were, to Christ. In moving from unbelief to belief in Christ and the gospel, one can move along an intellectual route or an affective, emotional route. For many, as for C.S. Lewis, both are involved. Therefore, when we practice apologetics, we should engage both of these ways. I would call the apologetic of C.S. Lewis holistic for this reason. He engaged both the head and heart.
Another example of an apologist who does this effectively is Ravi Zacharias. He masterfully blends story and argument in what essentially amounts to sermons to an unbelieving audience. He uses language creatively to engage the imagination and emotions as well as the intellect. I would consider his apologetic holistic as well.
These are just two examples of apologists that have used a holistic approach in their apologetic. Dr. Paul Gould, in his book Cultural Apologetics, argues for a more holistic approach. I imagine that, as this blog develops, I will discuss Paul Gould a lot. This book, which I have read in the last six months or so, has been a major influence for me in giving me a firmer conviction that apologetics should be holistic in its approach. Let me be clear; much of what I will discuss in this blog is influenced, or at least more helpfully categorized, by this book. I firmly believe that every Christian interested in apologetics should read this book. The primary focus in cultural apologetics, from Paul Gould's perspective, is a genuine missionary encounter of people in one's cultural context with the gospel. In order to encourage such an encounter, we must understand the basic outlines of the worldview of the culture in order to identify how Christ and the gospel speaks to it. Gould defines his approach concisely when he writes (21; emphasis is original):
"I define cultural apologetics as the work of establishing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination within a culture so that Christianity is seen as true and satisfying."
This, I think, is the insight that changed my perspective on apologetics. In order for someone to come to know Jesus Christ personally, they must, on some level, see the Christian faith as satisfying. This speaks to the deeper existential dimension of a worldview, not just its truth value. For this reason, Gould considers his approach to be compatible with all of the other prominent approaches to apologetics (ibid.).
I believe that, in order for our apologetic to be more effective and holistic, we must understand and adopt, to a certain extent, each of these major approaches and engage them in conversation with an unbeliever. Cultural apologetics is sort of the broad approach that gives focus to what we are trying to do in practicing apologetics. We are establishing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination in a certain cultural context so that Christianity is seen as true and satisfying. Each of the different approaches adopt a way that we, in conversation, can engage the mind and heart of the unbeliever so that they may, with the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, come to know Christ as Savior.
This element of holistic apologetics, as far as I can tell, is unique. Most apologists primarily fall within one camp. For instance, Dr. William Lane Craig is exclusively evidentialist, and Sye Ten Bruggencate is exclusively presuppositionalist. I mention these two methods because they are mutually exclusive in some ways. The presuppositionalist argues that the evidentialist approach isn't just less effective but also unbiblical. How, then, can the holistic apologist engage both methods in conversation with the unbeliever?
As one whose training in apologetics was primarily within the evidentialist approach because of the work of William Lane Craig, I disagree with the presuppositionalist claim that one must, in order to be biblical in one's approach, always adopt the position that Christianity is true in order to practice apologetics. The evidentialist is merely willing to argue, using reason, for what the presuppositionalist argues we must presuppose in our argumentation. I won't make specific arguments against those elements of the presuppositionalist position now, since that would take us too far astray. Suffice it to say now that, as one who uses the evidentialist approach, I find some elements, though not all, of presuppositionalism very helpful and insightful and have used them in discussions with unbelievers. One profound realization that I had recently was that, in many discussions that I've had with unbelievers, I've sounded like a presuppositionalist simply because I engaged their intellect and desire for truth by noting how their worldview doesn't work and isn't ultimately satisfying. That is a major component of presuppositionalism.
I firmly believe, then, that it is possible for the holistic apologist to respect the insight of each approach and switch, when needed, to one or the other, depending on the specific needs and bent of the unbeliever. The simple fact, as shown in Gould's book, is that people come to faith in Christ for all sorts of reasons, and each of the proponents to these methods have seen people brought to Christ. Why not, in that case, be willing to learn about each of them and use them? I don't see why not.
An apologetic that is holistic, then, can be summed up in two main points. First, holistic apologetics engages the whole of a person, both the head and the heart. Second, holistic apologetics is willing to adopt the best of multiple methods of apologetics in discussion with an unbeliever, all within the context of the culture in which the apologist lives.
Why is this important? Why do I believe that holistic apologetics is so important that I've started a blog over it? As Elliot Clark points out in his review of Gould's book for The Gospel Coalition, "as the questions posed by our Western culture rapidly change, so too must our approach." He goes on to say (emphasis is original):
"For instance, few contemporary objections to Christianity could rightly be categorized as purely rational. People no longer merely doubt the historical plausibility of Jesus’s resurrection; they can’t see why the resurrection should matter in the first place. And they certainly don’t see how such news might be good."
This is a tragedy, that someone would be convinced by the evidence and yet not care. But this is often the primary stumbling block for the unbeliever in today's culture. I have often, in teaching apologetics for the campus ministry in which I'm involved, said that, increasingly, I hear not that Christianity is false, but that it is intolerant, bigoted, racist, misogynist, colonial, and evil. To Millennials and Gen-Z'ers today, we, the Christians, are what's wrong with the world. I was shaken in this by the realization that the method that I had adopted for so long, evidentialism, simply couldn't answer this kind of objection in a way that would be satisfying for the unbeliever. No one wants to believe that what they believe is evil. Increasingly today, we must defend not only the truth of the Christian worldview but also its goodness and beauty.
It doesn't help, of course, that massively influential forces are at work in our culture to propagate this lie. All of the evidence of the last two thousand years has shown that, in spite of its at times serious imperfections, the Christian church has been the largest influence for good that the world has ever seen. Yet Christians, and the worldview that they embody, are vilified in the public square. Traditional biblical teachings are not just being doubted; they're being rejected as morally reprehensible by a culture whose only conviction is that no conviction is objectively true. The worldview of the culture is a contradictory mess resulting from an increasing postmodernism, critical theory, and cultural relativism. This worldview leads people to, at best, believe that historical Christianity is unimportant, yet another meta-narrative in a sea of meta-narratives, none of which is true. At worst, historical Christianity, in its claim that Jesus is the only way to God, is evil and must be silenced.
How do these forces in the culture-in politics, media, entertainment, and government-affect the lay person, your coworker, boss, friends, classmates and family? Simply put, most people, without any critical thought, simply absorb these ideas. And as the Colson Center for Christian Worldview constantly repeats, "Ideas have consequences. Bad ideas have victims." And we don't have to look very far, even around us, to start seeing victims. As Christians tasked with loving God with our minds and loving our neighbor as ourselves, we must speak against the culture. We must understand that the Christian worldview is both objectively true and objectively better than what the culture offers. In short, the new objections to the Christian worldview require a new, broader approach.
The holistic apologist, much like the cultural apologist, engages the heart and mind to awaken the desire for God, for the Christian worldview to be true. It combats-through a thoroughgoing defense of the gospel as good, beautiful, wonderful, enlightening, and true-the cultural worldview that says that the gospel is at best unimportant and at worst evil. I firmly believe, along with Paul Gould and Elliot Clark, that a holistic approach is necessary in order to address the rapidly changing cultural ideas concerning the Christian worldview.
I'll end this post with this question: what does practicing holistic apologetics require of us? This, again, is influenced mainly by my reading of Cultural Apologetics, since I, in reading the book, had come to the realization that the Christian must faithfully embody the worldview that he presents. I was convicted because I wasn't so sure if I saw the world the way Jesus does. I wasn't so sure if the beauty and splendor of what Gould calls a "God-bathed world" had ever gripped me. How, then, could I encourage the unbeliever with the beauty that I didn't see?
Holistic apologetics requires us, as Christians, to deeply embody the Christian worldview. In that sense, sanctification is in order for us. We must be committed to looking at ourselves seriously, to "taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5 NASB), so that we may realize and repent of those beliefs and ideas which come not from Christ but from the culture. And we must strive to bring our hearts and minds into conformity with Christ Jesus, so that, in how we live and what we believe, we embody the beauty and joy of the Christian life before those who are not Christians around us. In that way, how we live becomes a kind of apologetic. So holistic apologetics is important also because it requires that we deeply embody, in our hearts and minds, the worldview that we want to winsomely defend before others. Our apologetic should be just as holistic as our faith.
Finally, let's wrap up everything that we've discussed. First, we discussed what apologetics is by taking a somewhat deep dive into 1 Peter 3:15. Second, we discussed what a holistic apologetic is by pointing to the fantastic book by Paul Gould, Cultural Apologetics. Holistic apologetics seeks to appeal both to the head and heart and is willing to adopt the insights of different methods of apologetics in discussion with the unbeliever. Third, we briefly discussed why it's important to think of apologetics as properly holistic, highlighting the fact that it addresses the rapidly changing ideas in Western culture and calls us to embody the worldview of Christ in our lives, to live out a holistic faith.
I am excited to properly get started soon with the content of holistic apologetics, and I have several good ideas as to where the blog will go from here! If you're interested, please consider subscribing in order to be notified of new posts. Also, feel free to leave any comments here and start a discussion. Thanks for reading!
Clark, Elliot. "It’s Time for a Holistic Apologetic." The Gospel Coalition. The Gospel Coalition, 29 March 2019. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/cultural-apologetics/.
Gould, Paul. Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World. Michigan: Zondervan, 2019.