The Role of Apologetics

Based on my last blog post, some may come to the conclusion that I think there is no place for apologetics in the Christian life. That is not the case. I think apologetics have a small, but important role to play in the Christian’s dialog with the world. When Christians communicate with unbelievers in specific contexts, apologetics play a role. For example, Justin the Philosopher and Martyr used Roman religion and law to argue before the Roman government that Christians should not be persecuted. Others, most famously St. Paul, used pagan philosophers, poets and oracles to show that Christianity is the fulfillment of what the pagans have longed for. Apologetics in the form of reasoning in the categories of one’s interlocutor has a place in showing the unbeliever that any philosophy or even reason itself is no more or less reasonable than the Christian assertions. Apologetics show that the highest human longings expressed in the laws, poetry, prophesy, art or other expression of a culture find their fulfillment in Christ. However, in almost all cases, apologetics plays a limited role. It is not the kerygma (and much less the dogma) of the Church; rather, it is the Christian’s bending over to speak to the world in the language, metaphors, categories and paradigms that the world already knows.
However, as I believe Stanley Hauerwas has said somewhere, in bending over to speak to the world, the church has fallen in. Ways of thinking that may be appropriate in limited apologetic contexts have become the standard ways of thinking in the Church. Herein lies the problem. And this has been a problem for “School” Christianity since at least the Middle Ages in the West and in some places in the Orthodox Christian world since the 18th century (e.g. the Latin Captivity of the Russian Church). Knowledge of God in Christ is a matter of mystical apprehension, of knowing in one’s knower (as my godly, Baptist foster mother used to put it), of noetic enlightenment, or as St. Saraphim of Sarov put it, of acquiring the Holy Spirit.
When Christians begin to talk about their faith in the same rational categories and language that unbelievers talk about theirs (rationalism, atheism, scientism, whatever it may be, for everyone believes in something), then Christianity ceases to be itself. Apologetics and secular learning have their place (as I have mentioned before); but it is a limited place, a place that must be determined by, and in no way delimits or determines, the inner, mystical life of the Church.

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