10 Ways the Bible Uses Apologetics

ZA Blog on August 1st, 2018. Tagged under .

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Apologetics

Apologetics is how we logically and philosophically justify our beliefs in the Bible and Jesus. These arguments draw from a wide range of fields and use a variety of persuasive techniques.

Does the Bible itself provide a universal, context-free, step-by-step apologetic system we can apply to any and every apologetic situation? No. But it does offer tools and principles we can apply to our current cultural location, enabling us to think biblically about apologetics.

In their online course, Apologetics at the Cross, Joshua D. Chatraw and Mark D. Allen explore how the Bible creates persuasive arguments, showcasing methods, strategies, and principles that can shape our own arguments and reasoning today.

The following post is adapted from their course.

1. The cross is the best argument for Christianity

If ever there has been a proof-text against apologetics, it is surely 1 Corinthians 2:1–5:

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

Once this passage is read in context, it becomes clear that it is far from an anti-apologetic proof-text—it’s actually providing guidelines for how apologetics should be done.

The gospel has to be the goal

The Apostle Paul appears to place severe limits on the message Christians are to preach: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

It may have seemed that Paul was prohibiting any message outside of those about Jesus’ death, but if we read on, we can see that that’s not the case. In this very letter to the Corinthians, he discussed a wide array of topics, including sexual immorality, marriage, singleness, worship, spiritual gifts, speaking in tongues, and the Lord’s Supper.

Paul wasn’t saying the cross is all that matters. He meant that everything matters only if viewed through the lens of the cross.

Rather than negating apologetics, these verses in 1 Corinthians reveal the proper foundation for apologetics and guide its focus. They show that the goal of apologetics cannot simply be intellectual respectability or a defense of theism, as if belief in any deity will do. The goal of apologetics must be the cross. Apologetic appeals that use historical evidence, logic, desire, story, experience, and imagination are important, but they must not become of first importance (see 1 Corinthians 15:3). They should serve to bring people to what is of first importance—namely, the cross.

2. Creation proves God’s existence

According to Psalm 19:1–6, the heavens act as an apologist for God! Without saying a word, the sky, and by extrapolation, all of creation, declares the majesty of the Creator. Continuously, night after night and day after day, the heavens reveal that God exists and that he is glorious. This phenomenon is what theologians refer to as general (or natural) revelation.

In verses 4b–6, the psalmist poetically describes a day in the life of the sun. When this biblical poet observes the joyful emergence, grand course, and ubiquitous warmth of the sun, he is filled with awe and wonder at a revelation of the one true God.

But not so fast.

The heavens and sun may “prove” God’s existence to the Israelite worshiper, but they certainly don’t to everyone. Other religions in the ancient Near East looked at the same natural revelation and yet claimed that the sun, rather than pointing to one true God, is itself a manifestation of a god—and one god among many, at that.

Which “creator” does creation point to?

An Egyptian hymn to the sun god uses similar imagery to the poetic description in Psalm 19:

Hail to you, Re, perfect each day, who rises at dawn without failing . . .
Fine gold does not match your splendor . . .
When you cross the sky all faces see you . . .
In a brief day you race a course . . .

The Mesopotamians also wrote a hymn that sounds very similar to Psalm 19, addressed to Shamash, their sun god: “You cross regularly through the heavens, every day you traverse the vast earth.”

Three different people groups looked at the same sun, but interpreted what they saw differently.

Two groups saw it as a god, while the other saw it as a creation of the one true God.

This raises a set of perplexing questions. If, as the Bible claims, creation declares the glory of God, why don’t all people confess and praise his name? Why do some people worship something quite different? Is creation not an apologist after all?

Suppressing our knowledge of God

Paul answers these questions in Romans 1:18–25. He explains that while God makes his eternal power and divine nature known in creation, humans suppress the knowledge of God available to them. Creation reveals God, but people deny the truth that is right in front of them.

Paul’s affirmations about general revelation are consistent with Psalm 19. What may be known about God is plain to humankind through creation. God’s divine nature and eternal power are clearly and repeatedly revealed through what God has made and continues to sustain.

Therefore, the problem lies not with the revelation of God in nature, but rather with people, who suppress and twist the revelation and end up worshiping, as was the case in Egypt and Mesopotamia, creation rather than the Creator.

3. The prophets engaged their culture

In the Old Testament world, the predominant question wasn’t about the existence of a god or gods, but which god was true. For this reason, Old Testament prophets often employed polemics against false gods. Much of the Old Testament was written in defense of the true God and against ancient Near Eastern gods.

They challenged their culture

Old Testament prophets spoke against their culture, challenging it, often in the form of polemics. In his book Against the Gods, John Currid explains that in using polemics, Old Testament writers took familiar aspects of their culture—its “thought forms and stories,” its “expressions and motifs”—and “[filled] them with radically new meaning” in order to contrast their beliefs and way of life with the pagan culture around them—in particular, their worship of the one true God as opposed to the worship of many false gods so prevalent in the ancient Near East.

In this way, the polemics employed by the Old Testament writers were, above all, characterized by a commitment to monotheism and a fierce critique of polytheism. The Israelites spoke with their culture out of a shared conceptual world while simultaneously speaking against their culture in order to uphold the existence of the one true God.

They argued for the good of believers and nonbelievers alike

Third, the Old Testament is for the various cultures and peoples of its day. Genesis 1–11 takes a universal perspective: God created the world for the good of all people. Similarly, in Genesis 12, God calls Abraham, the father of Israel, to be a blessing to all people.

Old Testament prophets defend the God of Israel against false Egyptian, Canaanite, and Babylonian gods, not because God is against these peoples, but because he is ultimately for the nations. When God chooses Israel to be at the center of his redemptive plan, he does so to bless all people through them.

4. God speaks for himself through miracles

In the Old Testament, God’s acts of power serve as both a defense against alternative deities and an argument for the reality of the living God. In Exodus, for example, God demonstrates his power over false gods by turning Moses’s rod into a serpent and by directing the ten plagues against particular Egyptian gods.

Many such acts of power are recorded in the Old Testament, but perhaps the most famous occurs in 1 Kings 18, when Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal. Elijah sets the terms of competition: the god who ignites the wood under a sacrificial bull on an altar will be recognized as the true God.

The 450 prophets of Baal shout loudly, prophesy frantically, dance around the altar, and cut themselves with swords and spears, but they are unable to awaken their god. When they finish, Elijah douses his sacrifice with eight large jars of water and then asks God to ignite it so “these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again” (v. 37). The fire of the Lord falls, consuming everything—the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, the soil, and the water. When the people see this miracle, they fall prostrate and cry, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!” (v. 39). God, through acts of power, is his own apologist.

Miracles reveal the truth about Jesus

Jesus likewise performed miracles to validate his message about the kingdom of God and to demonstrate his identity and God’s love for all people.

Jesus performed so many miracles that John writes, “If every one of them were written down . . . even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25). John states the apologetic value of miracles clearly: “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).

Miracles reveal the truth about the early church

Miracles continue in the book of Acts, where the apostles perform them to verify that God is at work. On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit enables the disciples to speak in foreign languages. Peter connects this miracle to the prophecy of Joel 2 and to the signs and wonders God performed in Jesus’ ministry.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul identifies miraculous powers (12:10, 28), healing (12:9, 28), tongues (12:10, 28), and interpretation of tongues (12:10) as tangible witnesses to God’s reality. Some call these Spirit-given abilities “sign gifts” because they point to the authenticity of the gospel; they could even be called “apologetic gifts.” The author of Hebrews further affirms that signs, wonders, miracles, and spiritual gifts testify to the message of salvation announced by the Lord (Hebrews 2:3–4).

Throughout Scripture, miracles and acts of God’s power are presented as powerful apologetics. Even so, many who witnessed them did not believe. The miracles recorded in the Bible and the occurrence of miracles today can have a powerful apologetic impact, but they have limits. Some will need the cumulative impact of other apologetic methods to be persuaded, and others will not believe at all.

5. The early church relied on eyewitness accounts

At the beginning of his gospel, Luke claims access to eyewitness testimony of Jesus Christ’s life. He asserts that he carefully investigated what eyewitnesses told him before writing down an orderly account; he thoroughly researched his gospel so the reader could have confidence in what he recounted. In Luke’s own words:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

In Acts 1, Peter stands before 120 believers and urges them to choose a disciple to replace Judas. The primary qualification: the new disciple must “have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us” (1:21–22).

In the early church, some eyewitnesses were able to give testimony, not just to certain episodes of Jesus’ life, but to the whole of his story, from his baptism onward. These eyewitnesses became leaders in the early church, and many were still alive when the Gospels and New Testament letters were written. These eyewitnesses were living guarantees of the gospel tradition.

Paul used witnesses to lend credibility to the gospel

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul asserts that Jesus appeared after his resurrection to “Cephas [Peter], and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born” (15:5–8).

Paul seems to be saying, “The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection abounds. Check it out. Ask the eyewitnesses yourself. They are still alive!” It would have been easy to destroy Paul’s credibility if the claim were untrue.

6. New Testament writers pointed to fulfilled prophecies

A favorite apologetic method of New Testament authors and preachers is fulfilled prophecy. Sometimes Old Testament prophecies fulfilled by Christ were employed to convince unbelieving Jews; at other times, they were used to ground the faith of those who already believed.

In general, Jesus fulfills all Old Testament hope. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus identified himself as the fulfillment of the Old Testament Law and Prophets; he stated that he did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt 5:17). After his resurrection, Jesus taught two discouraged disciples how the Old Testament witnessed to him (Luke 24:27). Just before his ascension, he grounded the gospel message for his apostles in the Old Testament (Luke 24:44–49).

Jesus does not contradict the Old Testament’s story, but brings it to its intended goal. He also fulfilled many specific prophecies, such as the prophecies that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem and would preach to the poor and brokenhearted.

The primary audience for New Testament authors was religious Jews who accepted the authority of the Old Testament. Teachers spent their time poring over it, interpreting and counter-interpreting it. There was constant dialogue over the meaning and relevance of the Law. Thus, first-century believers demonstrated that their faith in Jesus Christ was in continuity with Old Testament hope, pattern, and prophecy.

7. The way Christians live is proof of the gospel’s power

The lives of Jesus’ followers ought to make an apologetic impact. The way we live is evidence of the living reality of God.

At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus summarizes the counterintuitive norms of God’s kingdom, pronouncing a blessing on those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and who are persecuted (Matthew 5:1–12). Ironically, it is those who seek peace and show mercy, people who do not put themselves first, who are blessed—persecuted, but blessed.

The humble, cruciform lives of God’s people are meant to be an apologetic for the reality of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus calls us “the salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:13–14).

As the salt of the earth, we preserve the world from moral decay and function as an influence for good. As the light of the world, we do good deeds in such a way that some people will recognize us as children of God, and come to praise our Father (Matthew 5:16). Through our lives, we add value to the world and give evidence of the heavenly Father.

Christians love as Christ loved

During a meal before the Passover, Jesus gives a “new” commandment filled with apologetic power: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (13:34–35).

Love—self-sacrificing, cruciform love—testifies to the reality of the gospel.

8. Jesus used questions to challenge people’s beliefs

Jesus often uses a subversive methodology in which he asks insightful questions in order to challenge and undermine false beliefs. Here are few examples:

  • When Jesus’ authority is questioned, he replies, “John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” (Matthew 21:25).
  • When questioned about paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus responds, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” (Matthew 22:20).
  • Jesus asks the Pharisees a series of questions concerning the nature of the Messiah in Matthew 22:41–46:

“What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”

“How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’?”

“If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?”

All of these questions are designed to undermine and disarm false beliefs. Questions can both subtly subvert wrong assumptions and directly challenge erroneous dogmas.

Questions force people to think for themselves, and in turn they force us to directly listen and respond to their thoughts rather than just talk at them. This enables a richer, much more personal exchange of thoughts and feelings and can set a relational context for persuasion.

9. Scripture addresses suffering

The Bible never shies away from the fact that there is suffering in the world. In fact, its pages are filled with expressions of raw emotions that are caused by evil and suffering. There is even a genre called lament devoted to the expression of these emotions, and an entire book of the Bible titled “Lamentations” (in Hebrew the title is simply “How!”).

Thus, one of most common apologetic methods the Bible uses in addressing the problem of suffering is to invite the sufferer to engage God with honest grief and complaint. In biblical laments, the Bible gives verbal, lyrical, and liturgical shape to the messiness of our confusion.

The Bible explains suffering

Does the Bible give an apologetic for our suffering? Put simply, does the Bible give a reason for our suffering? Yes. Without exhaustively answering every question related to suffering, the following are different ways the Bible addresses the issue:

Humanity suffers because of sin. Adam and Eve chose to disobey God’s one command; as a result, sin entered the world, and suffering followed (Genesis 3).

Disciples of Jesus suffer persecution because they follow Christ, who was persecuted himself (Matthew 5:10–12).

Christians suffer in order to mature spiritually (James 1:2–4), grow in righteousness and peace (Hebrews 12:5–11), and be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ (Rom 8:28–30).

10. Paul repurposed secular ideas

In Paul’s speech before Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill, he quotes the pagan poet Aratus (ca. 315–240 BC): “We are [God’s] offspring” (Acts 17:28). Paul’s argument that springboards from this quote is as follows:

If we are God’s offspring, then obviously we should not think of him, as you Athenians do, in terms of gold or silver or stone images. God creates us; we do not create him. He gives life and breath to us; we do not design and make him. God is the Creator, and we are created in his image.

In this way, Paul uses a pagan quote to support his own point. Ironically, Paul uses a Greek quote originally referring to Zeus as a critique of the Greek philosophers’ own idolatry.

Paul masterfully argues within the plausibility structure of his audience by quoting their own poet, reimagining the quote in light of biblical truth and then turning it against their pagan beliefs.

This demonstrates that the Bible is not against reasoning within secular cultural narratives, because those very narratives can be turned on their heads and used as highly effective apologetic tools.

Modern apologetics can learn from the Bible’s model

Scripture challenges believers to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).

Studying apologetics is one way we can prepare. And the Bible itself provides valuable insight into how we should do that.

This post is adapted from the Apologetics at the Cross online course, taught by Joshua D. Chatraw and Mark D. Allen.