a peacemaker’s guide to Christian apologetics?

I’m in the midst of trying to write an article on Christian apologetics — the art of negotiating conversations in which you answer objections and tackle common ‘defeater beliefs’ about the Christian faith.

And I’ve come unstuck (evidently — otherwise I’d be writing the article rather than posting this).

Why? What’s my problem?

Well, first a bit about me:

I’m someone who’s read numerous books and articles, attended training courses, and even run my fair share of training on apologetics. I’m not an expert. But I do have a bunch of answers under my belt. And a few tricks up my sleeve — ways of nudging these conversations in more fruitful directions (e.g., where they’re more likely to end up focusing on Jesus rather than some obscure details about the origins of the universe — which, to be honest, neither I nor most of my conversation partners actually know anything about).

And yet I’m no longer confident this is the kind of thing envisaged in the most frequently quoted prooftext for the enterprise of apologetics (1 Peter 3.15-16):

In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.

I’m more and more convinced that the sanctifying Christ as Lord in our own hearts bit is the key to the rest of it. And that readiness to make a defence doesn’t equal carrying concealed argumentative weapons into every conversation and trying to hijack it so that it goes where I want it to go.

Rather, I suspect all the stuff there about gentleness, reverence, and keeping a clear conscience is the main game. (This would certainly fit with the overall thrust of the section of 1 Peter running from roughly half-way through chapter 2 through to the end of the letter.)

What this means is that we need a peacemaker’s guide to Christian apologetics — a set of strategies to break out of what Holly Weeks in her book Failure To Communicate calls the ‘combat mentality’, the inclination to see every potentially tricky conversation as a battlefield either to be avoided or upon which to fight.

And I’m not sure I’ve found any of those in my reading about apologetics.


  1. You have a point there, Chris.

    I reckon the shape of a conversation that follows the 1 Peter exhortation will go something like, “Why are you doing X?” “Because Jesus Christ is Lord, and so Y, and therefore X.” [Whether you start or finish with Jesus doesn’t really matter (and I have a proof text for that, too.)] So, our speech and actions – the observable part of our lives – need to naturally grow out of our hope in the holy Jesus Christ.

    Now, too much of my speech and actions are espalier-ed by my birth culture, and overgrown with mistletoe and bromeliads. So the temptation is to learn apologetic shortcuts and ‘hacks’ to rewire conversations so that they lead to Jesus. I think this is only a problem because the conversations don’t lead to Jesus naturally. So the ‘get it back to Jesus’ urge is us pulling, not the conversation pushing.

    On the other hand, not every interlocutor is going to be gracious and open-eared. I think both the second and third sentences in the 1 Peter quote suggest a hostile listener. So it’s not always going to be entirely mutual to ‘get it back to Jesus’, and we will need to pull, gently and respectfully.

    I think the answer is not to think more about apologetics as a distinct discipline, but to be good systematic theologians whose theology comes out in practice that does link directly back to Jesus. In our hearts, to set apart Jesus Christ as Lord, and to live that out. And when challenged, to say what’s in our hearts.


    FWIW, I thought about a very similar issue in July last year, in the context of journalism and media coverage of Christians:
    “And now comes the other disturbing bit. Different positions on religious violence or Muslim immigration are being casually described with ‘left’ and ‘right’ labels. What this suggests to me is that the secular ‘left-right’ filter is all that the journalist sees. A journalist looks at an issue – he finds a Christian – he reports a ‘Christian position’. But the sum is just a list of issues and a list of positions. Christians have had each of their views on issues pigeon-holed and atomised. And given the differences among and between Christians, the various issue-positions labelled as ‘Christian’ are likely to have no common source, let alone internal coherence. There is no ‘Christian engagement with culture’ on view in the media, where all the issues form a picture of a person holding their stance with integrity. And if you can’t see a Christian under all of it, how are you ever going to see Jesus? So is it really a Christian act to engage with culture in these terms?
    “As a result of this atomisation, no one in the media seems to be qualified even to ask the basic questions of coherence and correspondence of anyone claiming to be ‘Christian’. Would it help if someone wrote a book? Start with the Gospel – move outward to personal and social ethics – show how the core contributes to the parts – demonstrate coherence and correspondence – show where we differ among ourselves, how pulling this shifts that and that in the overall web – relate all of it to people and events the journalists are familiar with, so that they stay interested. Basically, as an apologetic work, it would be a targeted attempt to help journalists understand us.
    I’d better read ‘Joined-Up Life’ sometime soon.”

    [Still haven’t read it, BTW.]

    1. Thanks, Alan. Very helpful perspective — and intriguing suggestion about something targeted at journalists. We talking a book? Website? Series of viral YouTube clips?

      I think you’re right about the hostility Peter expects his readers to be facing. However, I’m not so sure the tactics that usually get recommended will actually help us “pull” the conversation towards Jesus. I fear that most of them are far more likely to harden opposition, put people on the defensive, or otherwise cause us to ‘lose’ (probably precisely because they’re about winning and losing rather than what Peter seems to recommend in the context here — ie. entrusting ourselves to God and doing right even if we suffer for it).

    2. Yeah. I think the word I’m looking for is integrity – the appeal to Jesus as the core reality of one’s lived life needs to be genuine (gulp), or it risks being just a learnt debating tactic or (worse) a pious fraud. Let’s be real, even if we fear we’ll sound ridiculous, even if we’re shamefaced about how far we fall short of where we’d like to be. Let’s treat our conversation partners as people, not as PR targets.

      And let’s work on the reality of our lives. By all means, let’s learn how everything ties back to Christ. But let’s do that so we live cross-and-resurrection-shaped lives, which may seem inexplicable to observers, who may demand answers, which may draw malign abuse, which may put the abusers to shame one day, in God’s time and at his pleasure.

      Not exactly a short cut to winning arguments, is it?

  2. What this means is that we need a peacemaker’s guide to Christian apologetics — a set of strategies to break out of what Holly Weeks in her book Failure To Communicate calls the ‘combat mentality’, the inclination to see every potentially tricky conversation as a battlefield either to be avoided or upon which to fight.

    Are you familiar with Greg Koukl’s book Tactics?

    1. I’m not sure I can put my finger on it. I guess I’m uncomfortable with his stated aim of equipping Christians to ‘stay in control’ of conversations. It sort of makes it sound like conversations are a zero sum game — with winners and losers…

      I also found his reading of 1 Peter 3 pretty ‘thin’ (taking verse 15 out of context) and unconvincing. Maybe I’ve misunderstood and need to hang in there to see where it all goes, but it felt like Peter’s emphasis on ‘sanctifying Christ as Lord in our hearts’ — and thus on issues of character (integrity, etc) — got overshadowed by the ‘be prepared to give a reason’ thing. Does that make sense?

    1. Thanks, Dan. I’ll take that as a compliment!

      You could well be right. There’s precious little of The Beauty of The Infinite that I understand. What’s his answer?

    2. Maybe someone needs to do the popularised and applied version of Bentley Hart — like Andrew Cameron’s done the popular and applied version of O’Donovan in Joined-Up Life?

      I nominate you.

    3. I was under the impression that you already had that ship under way with your article…

      More seriously, perhaps what you need is to develop the theology of ‘holiness’ throughout 1 Peter. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about 1 Peter recently and I think that it presents the most compelling theology of Christ and culture in the NT and the key concept is holiness. Like you said, ‘set apart Christ as Lord’ is the key foundation for the rest of the verse.

      Some combination of a theology of holiness as the distinctive relation of the people of God to the nations, with a theology of aesthetics as the rhetoric of peaceful persuasion appropriate to the gospel. John Webster embracing David Bentley Hart in a reading of 1 Peter.

      I counter-nominate you.

    4. Hey – I only just realised there was more than the first sentence to this comment. Sorry, Dan!

      1 Peter. Yeah – totally. Been doing some thinking about it myself (planning to teach on it next year). And I have Harink’s commentary on order… Let’s compare notes!

      But we really are looking for the (post-metaphysical) love child of Webster and Bentley Hart, aren’t we? Speaking a language that ordinary people have a chance of understanding. And dressed like a hipster, no doubt.

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