Thursday, April 15, 2021

An Apology for Apologetics

Communication is hard—for many reasons, one being that the same word sometimes has quite different meanings. Apology is one such word, and I invite you to think with me a bit about the meaning, and value, of apology and apologetics.

My Lifelong Interest in Apologetics

An apology often means an expression of regret or remorse for something a person has said or done. But there is another, technical meaning of that same word. Apology can also be legitimately used to mean the verbal or written defense of one’s basic beliefs.

There is a long history of apology being used in the latter sense with regards to the Christian faith, beginning with these New Testament words: “Always be ready to make your defense [ἀπολογίαν, apologian] to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).

One of the important Christian books of the second century CE is First Apology of Justin Martyr (c.156), and his Second Apology was written shortly after the first one.

As a third-year college student, I became deeply interested in Christian apologetics, the religious discipline of defending Christian beliefs through rational discourse.

Philosophers/theologians such as Pascal and Kierkegaard were the Christian “apologists” I was most interested in at first and through graduate school, although I also read and wrote papers by lesser-known thinkers such as German theologian Karl Heim and Hungarian philosopher Michael Polanyi.**

A Good Book on Apologetics

This article was prompted by my recent reading of Randal Rauser’s 2020 book, Conversations with My Inner Atheist: A Christian Apologist Explores Questions that Keep People Up at Night.

Rather than writing more about that book in this article, I invite you to see here for a brief review of that intriguing work by Rauser (b. 1973), a Canadian Baptist seminary professor. 

A Different Type of Apologetics

Even though I maintained my initial interest in apologetics, long ago I began to shift my emphasis from apologetics by rational argument to what I sometimes refer to as “apology by life.”##

That shift was prompted by my growing awareness that the main reason so many Japanese students in my classes at Seinan Gakuin University rejected Christianity was not because of intellectual issues but because of ethical problems.

The bulk of the students in my Christian Studies classes did not have as much problem, I gradually began to see, with Christian doctrines as with Christian actions.

Rejection of Christianity was based far more on what they had learned in high school world history classes about the Crusades, for example, or what they had seen on television about racism in the United States, which they generally thought was a “Christian nation.”

With that awareness, I began to read and think less about traditional apologetics and more and more about Christian social ethics. Thus, I began thinking more about apology by life rather than apology by rational discourse.

Rauser hardly deals with this matter in his book, although the 20th chapter begins with Mia saying, “It’s often been said that the biggest objection to Christianity is the life of Christians.” That is probably true.

Although I was unable to find the source, I have often heard these or similar words that Nietzsche reportedly said to Christians: “Show me that you are redeemed, and I will believe in your Redeemer.”

For a long time now, Christians have needed to say less about their beliefs and to act much more deliberately and lovingly for peace and justice, that is, for the basic well-being of all people.


** My last essay published by The Seinan Theological Review in Japan was in March 2004, and it was largely on the thought of Karl Heim. It is available for viewing/reading here.

## In footnote 16 of the above article, I wrote, “I have long wanted to write an essay on ‘Apology by Life.’ Apologetics has long been one of my strongest interests, but long ago I realized that the best apologetics may well be done by loving action rather than by words.”

Disclosure: The review I wrote of Rauser’s book and my mentioning of Rauser and his book in this blog article is partly because of receiving the book for review from Mike Morrell and his Speakeasy book review network.


  1. This is a very interesting blog, Leroy. And I find myself over the top in thinking about responses. A whole book needs to be written, as I'm sure you realized trying to write this short blog. I'm going to try to be very brief, even cryptic. Several quick thoughts off the top of my head:
    1. Apology-by-life is both biblical (they will know you by your fruits/love) and potentially more convincing than all the superstitious-fantastic-filled labyrinthine of Christian theologies. P.S.: Christian thought probably should always be plural; i.e., theologies.
    2. For most of Christian history, in my view, Christianity has, as a whole, overwhelmingly flunked the apology-by-life test. In other words, your Japanese students were right in their assessment. P.S.: And it appears to be getting only worse, at least in the USA.
    3. It appears to me currently that Xty in America is not so much divided by beliefs vs. loving-work-for-peace-and-justice but rather a reactionary-jingoistic-and-white-supremacist Xty vs. loving-work-for-peace-and-justice. P.S.: This is seen in the two divides between mainstream Xty and white evangelicalism and between black evangelicals and white evangelicals.

    1. Thanks so much, Anton, for your thoughtful comments. And, yes, I long ago realized that there could be, and should be, at least a lengthy essay written about this topic--and I once intended to do just that, but never did have the time or energy to do it.

      Here are brief responses to your three points: re. 1. -- Thanks for pointing out the biblical references to apology by life; I think that is an important point to emphasize, although I did not refer to it in my post. And I agree with your P.S.--but not only are there plural theologies, it may be true to speak of plural Christianities as well. As you may remember, my Jan. 15, 2019, blog post was titled "Two Christianities?" (

      But I have trouble with your reference to "the superstitious-fantastic-filled labyrinthine of Christian theologies." Granted there are some theologies like that, but I reject the idea that all, or even most, are. For example, I still think the theological apologetics of Karl Heim is of great intellectual value, although few people now know or think much about him.

      re. 2. -- Yes, I think you are correct in this, although I think the situation is better in Japan than in the U.S. When I began talking more there about Christians such as Kagawa Toyohiko as well as contemporary Christians actively involved in social justice issues, many began to show more interest in Christianity.

      re. 3. -- Again, this is closely linked to my "Two Christianities?" blog post mentioned above.

  2. Many people turn away from Christianity and JESUS because they have bad experiences with socalled religious people.
    We need to remind ourselves that JESUS also had bad experiences with socalled religious people-He was Crucified by them.
    We need to get still&quiet and ask GOD to reveal to us what is in our Heart&Mind,and be ready to act upon what He reveals.

  3. Thinking Friend Les Hill in Kentucky sent the following pertinent comments:

    "Maybe directly related, two books I've recently begun reading through:

    "1. 'The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief' by Francis S. Collins who led the Human Genome Project. His scientific understandings led him to believe in a creator God and the Christian faith.

    "2. 'Telling a Better Story: How to Talk About God in a Skeptical Age' by Joshua D Chatraw. His book points to, 'Today the gospel story is often presumed to not only be an oppressive leftover from the past. How do we talk about God when people believe that Christianity is on the "wrong side of history"?' He presents answers toward solving the difficulties

    "A recent Gallup poll for the first time in nearly a century indicates the total number of American, Christians, Muslims and Jews (relating to their beliefs) represent only 47% of the American population–less than 50% (down from 70% in 1999 & 73% in 1940). Does not effective witness need both evidence lived and clearly shared by name?

    "(Elton Trueblood a leading Quaker wrote years ago about a sense of arrogance that we can live such good lives that people will come to faith.)"

    1. Thanks, Les, for sharing these comments; it was good to hear from you again.

      I have read some of Collins’s book and I appreciate his positive Christian witness. His is the type of written apologetics that is most effective, I think.

      I had not heard of Chatraw's 2020 book, but I would certainly want to read if I were still teaching college students (as I wish I were!). I was surprised to see that the author is a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary but is theologian-in-residence at an Anglican church.

      My first interest in apologetics was spurred when I read Trueblood's "Philosophy of Religion" as a third-year college student, but I don't remember hearing his words that you quoted. I think there is certainly some truth to what he said, but I am also sure that there are many people who have rejected the Christian faith because of the "bad lives" some Christians have lived.

      On my first or probably my second missionary furlough, I remember emphasizing the need for Christians to live more Christlike lives, and I said something like, "When there are more good Christians there will be more Christians."

  4. “Apology by Life” is a nice turn of phrase. I, too, think the best account of one’s commitments is the life one leads [though on this I am a miserable failure]. The mention of fruit by Anton reminded me of Hebrews 12:11 “Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” [NRSV]

    Nietzsche quote “They would have to sing better songs for me to learn to have faith in their Redeemer: and his disciples would have to look more redeemed!” [Thus Spoke Zarathustra: Second Part: On Priests (Kaufmann translation)]

    You might also find this quote interesting: “It is false to the point of nonsense to find the mark of the Christian in a ‘faith,’ for instance, in the faith in redemption through Christ: only Christian *practice*, a life such as he *lived* who died on the cross, is Christian. Such a life is still possible today, for certain people even necessary: genuine, original Christianity will be possible at all times. Not a faith, but a doing; above all, a *not* doing of many things, another state of *being*. [The Antichrist, section 39 (also Kaufmann)]

    I take Nietzsche’s point to be that faith as commitment, faithfulness to a practice as a way of being (habitus) is more an indicator of Christian *character* than mere belief. Nietzsche was in the tradition of virtue ethics after all. :-)

    As always, thanks for your work.

    Shalom, Dick

    1. Dick, thanks much for your comments and for the information about Nietzsche. I am happy to have Thinking Friends that are more knowledgeable than I and who can supply information that I was unable to. I continue to be intrigued by Nietzsche and regret that I did not study him more--and write at least an essay about him--as I once, many years ago, intended to do.

  5. Educational and much appreciated summary, as usual, Leroy! Interesting to hear of your early reading of what sounds like a "classical" apologetics list: Martyr, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Heim and Polanyi. My generation of would-be apologists read people like Josh McDowell, Ravi Zacharias, Gleason Archer (Encyc of Bible Difficulties) and a little later, Lee Strobel.

    From what I can see, that reading prepared a generation of Christian apologists to run away at the first sign of disagreement, when they tried their arguments on real people outside their Christian culture. I seem to recall the apologists shouting "Your blood be on your own heads!" as they ran away. At least, that was the general result when I invited 25 apologetics-loving Christians from a large evangelical church to join 25 atheists in my Provocateurs & Peacemakers group. A few weeks of learning that apologetics by rational argument (as you appropriately called it) didn't leave a dent, nor did trying to shoot the atheists with their gospel guns (they earned no notches), and the Christian "apologists" lit out never to return.

    A decade later, the group today is composed of 95% atheists, and it's still difficult getting Christians to come and stay for long.

    1. Thanks, Fred, for your comments; I appreciate you taking the time to post what you did here.

      Yes, I think conservative evangelical apologists such as McDowell, Zacharias (even before the recent charges against him), and Strobel have caused widespread criticism of apologetics by more progressive Christians. That is one reason I have quite positive feelings about Rauser and his book: he has long been in conservative (Baptist) circles, but he is more open to and deals with the criticisms of atheists/agnostics better than the men just mentioned.

      I appreciate so much what you have done for years now with the Provocateurs & Peacemakers group, and if I had been younger and the meetings had been closer (before you went to Zoom) I would very much like to have been a part of your regular meetings--and I much appreciate the times you invited me to speak to that group.

  6. This morning I received these comments from Thinking Friend Virginia Belk in New Mexico:

    "Perhaps Apology by Life is to what Jesus referred when he summarized the 'greatest commandment' as loving God with all the heart, mind and soul and likewise, the second is , 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' The one and only way we can love God with all our being IS to love the rest of humanity as we love ourselves and to take care of our planet and all creation for our mutual survival. Try as I might, I fall short far too often but I continue to attempt to so love."

  7. Yesterday evening, local Thinking Friend Will Adams send the following brief, but important, comments:

    "You hit the nail on the head! I remember Gandhi being turned away from Christian services. How can Christians claim to represent a loving God when we scorn humans; whom we deem inferior? Setting an example will always be more effective than argument, even a rational one."

    1. Thanks, Dr. Adams.

      Earlier this morning, my Thinking Friend Kenneth K. Grenz posted the following highly relevant quote by Karl Rahner (1904~84) on Facebook:

      “The number one cause of atheism is Christians. Those who proclaim Him with their mouths and deny Him with their actions is what an unbelieving world finds unbelievable.”

    2. And within the hour, Ken also posted the following on Facebook:

      I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Gandhi:

      “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

  8. I agree with your last paragraph-more living out of faith/beliefs, and less talk. It has been my experience over the years that arguments/defending beliefs only leads others deeper into their own position/beliefs, rather than being open to another's arguments/defence. I think dialogue and conversation works better, especially when/if others respect one another.

  9. The problem I see with a Christian (or any other type of believer) writing their own apology is that they (we) would lack the vantage point to see clearly what they (we) were writing about. This is much the same reason why it is strongly recommended in law that a person not serve as their own lawyer. As the old saying goes, "He who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client." Besides, while my internet search did not confirm it, it just seems a proper apology should be presented by Apollo (that is, an Apollogy). Now Apollo's counterpoint, Dionysus, would probably be more interested in the contents of the communion cup.

    To look at it another way, physicists can tell you about many sub-atomic particles, but they can say very little about the foundations of physics. I can see a metaphor for the trinity in a proton's three quarks, but do not press me too hard to explain any of that!

  10. Here are comments received on April 17 from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks for your comments, Leroy, about Christian apologetics. Of course, apologetics is not limited to Christians; Muslims have been active apologists as well. There is definitely a place for apologetics, not just to challenge the beliefs of others, but also as a challenge to the beliefs of the apologist himself or herself, who must examine his or her own faith in writing an apology.

    "I doubt that formal apologies change the beliefs of very many persons; people usually convert for other reasons (social, emotional, etc). Nonetheless, why some people convert can be fascinating. I cite C.S. Lewis as a particularly fascinating example; he was evidently convinced by arguments from J.R.R. Tolkien about the meaning and significance of myths. Lewis and Tolkien used to drink a pint or two together at a pub in Oxford called the Eagle and Child (which they humorously called the 'Bird and the Babe'). Knowing this, Judy and I had lunch there in 2015. It's a cozy place."

  11. Thinking Friend Jeanie McGowan in central Missouri sent me an email with these comments on April 20:

    "Thank you again for expressing the need we who claim to follow Christ too often forget in our defensiveness of Christianity. As my mom frequently said, 'Actions speak louder than words.' I find it difficult to respond to those who are critical of social justice! Jesus’ life was all about living that out."

  12. I am currently reading an important new (2020) book titled "Circling the Elephant: A Comparative Theology of Religious Diversity." In writing succinctly about apologetics, author John J. Thatamanil refers to a book I once knew about (and likely read, at least in part) but had forgotten: Paul J. Griffiths, "An Apology for Apologetics: A Study in the Logic of Interreligious Dialogue" (1991).