Speaking the Truth in Love: The Role of Apologetics in Pastoral Ministry
By George P. Wood
A few years ago, Sherry, a woman who attended my church, handed me The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown and asked me to read it. Even though the book is fictional, it was raising troubling questions about the history, beliefs, and social practices of traditional Christianity. Sherry wanted me to help her sort out fact from fiction.
I procrastinated reading The Da Vinci Code for several months. I did not want to waste my time reading a mystery novel. But the book was a runaway best seller. Columbia Pictures announced plans to make a movie starring Tom Hanks based on the book. Scholars published books debating its factual assertions. Television news magazines produced hour-long specials regarding it. And more parishioners came to me with their troubling questions about it. So I finally read the book.
The Da Vinci Code’s fast-moving plot kept me interested from start to finish. The book, however, also incorporated self-proclaimed facts into the storyline that were obviously false and easily refuted. I could see why people with little knowledge of Christian doctrine and church history might be impressed, but I was a seminary-educated pastor, and I was not. To help set the record straight, I preached to my parishioners about The Da Vinci Code, and I wrote a blog series about it for my church’s Web site.
The Da Vinci Code taught me that apologetics is important. Radical skepticism about traditional Christianity pervades our culture. If the church does not offer a convincing response to skeptical arguments, no one else will.
Truth and Spiritual Maturity
Why does the church need to respond to skeptics?
In Ephesians 4:14,15, the apostle Paul draws a connection between truth and spiritual maturity: “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.”
According to Paul, spiritual maturity — defined as Christlikeness — is the end we pursue. The means by which we pursue it is truth telling. Falsehood is an obstacle to our pursuit of spiritual maturity. So if we want to be Christlike, we must be able to discern the truth and defend it against falsehood.
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Unfortunately, our culture is rife with every wind of teaching. Radical skepticism about traditional Christianity is overt, covert, and multimedia. Consider a few examples.
Richard Dawkins is a well-known evolutionary biologist and militant atheist. He recently published The God Delusion. Although atheists represent a tiny fraction of the American populace, Dawkins’ book is a best seller. It offers a variety of arguments why belief in God is irrational.
Another best-selling author who challenges traditional Christianity is Bart Ehrman. At one time, Ehrman was an evangelical Christian; now he considers himself an agnostic. In Misquoting Jesus, he argues that the text of the New Testament is unreliable because scribes have altered the New Testament documents over the years. According to Ehrman, we cannot know what those documents originally said.
Dawkins and Ehrman’s books are nonfiction best sellers. But fiction best sellers also attack traditional Christianity. Their arguments, however, are covert, rather than overt.
Philip Pullman, for example, has written a best-selling, award-winning trilogy marketed to children. His Dark Materials consists of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. In these books, God (the Authority) and His church (the Magisterium) are evil, oppressive forces. Humanity is liberated when, at the end of The Amber Spyglass, God finally dies.
The Da Vinci Code incorporates attacks on traditional Christianity into its storyline. The book’s plot turns on the revelation that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene and fathered a royal dynasty. This dynasty promotes the gospel of the Sacred Feminine, which, according to Brown, a male-chauvinist, traditional Christianity works hard to suppress.
Books are not the only media in which traditional Christianity is attacked. Hosts from television and radio shows interviewed Dawkins and Ehrman about their ideas. Major movie studios released films based on both The Da Vinci Code and The Golden Compass. Time and Newsweek devoted cover stories to the controversies surrounding these books.
Because of its cultural pervasiveness, radical skepticism also seeps into the church. Christians cannot avoid wrestling with the questions culture is asking.
If belief in God is irrational, as Dawkins argues, why should we believe in Him? If the New Testament is unreliable, as Ehrman argues, why should we trust what it says? Radical skepticism becomes an obstacle to faith for unbelievers, and a temptation for believers to abandon the faith.
In the language of Paul, radical skepticism is a “stronghold” (2 Corinthians 10:4,5). What do Christians do with strongholds? “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” Apologetics refutes skeptical arguments so unbelievers can become believers and believers can mature spiritually. Therefore, in our cultural context, both evangelism and discipleship require apologetics…